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~*~

Bright white lights from the combat arena blur in front of Gimrizh’s eyes. Her arms are beginning to ache from the weight of her practice blade and the constant impacts as her two fellow acolytes attack her. A lightsaber, a real lightsaber, not a practice sword, is weightless. That reminder dangles in her thoughts, one of the many tantalizing rewards that will come when she is finally Sith.

A flash of motion.

The inelegant scratching noise of a vibroblade slicing through air.

A cut to her head, Academy student - three years older, longer reach, but slow.

Gimrizh doesn’t think about it - she drops low to the ground, her entire body angled forward, right hand tight around her vibroblade.

Before the student strikes she’s already dodged. A loud hiss of energy cuts through the arena as her blade smacks into his ribs, sending the man flying ten meters backwards and into a heap on the ground. She spares him a quick follow up glance through the clumps of sweaty hair that have stuck to her face just to make sure that he stays down.

That’s one.

A second strike, aimed at her ankles this time, a short sharp lunge. Gimrizh twists her wrist, planting her free hand on the ground and using it as a springboard to flip backwards, putting a good bit of distance between her and her second sparring partner.

She lets the older woman try another lunging strike. A quick glance at the woman tells Gimrizh that there’s no way she can try and match her in a contest of strength, so when the vibroblade slashes out she doesn’t block. She holds her blade in a reverse grip, the length of it against her forearm, letting the other woman’s attack slide down and glance off.

Sparks fly and then Gimrizh plants a sidekick into the woman’s knees and she crumples.

A buzz of a timer goes off.

“You’re too slow.” Tremel ignores the two downed opponents as he strides into the center of the arena. Chrono in hand, he shows her the offending numbers with a scowl. “No, don’t get up, stay as you are.”

Gimrizh remains frozen in the position she’d finished in, her right leg just about to land back down on the ground and her vibroblade arching around behind her.

He drags a critical gaze across every aspect of her form, clicking his tongue in disapproval at what he sees. Pain stings through her shoulder and then behind her left knee as Tremel smacks her with his own deactivated practice sword, pointing out the weaknesses in her form. “Sloppy work, acolyte. If I had given you three opponents instead of two, you’d be dead.”

With a wave of his hand, he lefts her drop into a bow. “Sorry but - I can’t keep up a guard forever.”

“Then increase your speed to the point where it becomes irrelevant. Do I have to spell this out for you? The main Academy will not be so lenient, and neither will your future master.” Tremel tosses her the chrono so that she can check her times herself and then gestures absently to the two fallen Academy students. “Leave us.”

Gimrizh pauses in the midst of reviewing the holo footage of the spar. It’s only been a few hours, why is he stopping her training already? “Overseer?”

“You’re hesitating,” Tremel says sternly. “It’s been a full year - if you can’t move on, you’ll follow her into death.”

She flinches. Green hair and red light flashes behind her closed eyes. “I know. I’m trying to make myself angrier to fix this - it’s just - it’s difficult.”

“Work through it. If you won’t kill, you’ll be nothing more than a liability in the field. Don’t you want to be Sith?”

The flat question stings like a slap across the cheek. He knows as well as she does that both hearts pounding in her chest want to wear the Empire’s colors, to carry a lightsaber at her hip, to march into battle for the Sith Order. Service to the Sith is what she longs for, what she’s been taught to long for all her life. She can’t not want it.

“Of course,” she protests without a second thought. “I’ll try harder, I promise.”

Tremel steps backwards and activates his practice sword, giving her only a moment to realize that he means to beat this particular lesson into her. “Then try harder now.”

He gestures for her to begin.

~*~

One year later.

~*~

"Bringing in prisoners, really, what sort of Sith are you?"

Vette perks up at the noise coming from outside of the holding cells. It’s Jailer Knash talking. He’s irritated by something - he’s never in a pleasant mood, she suspects that’s a feature, not a bug, in the personality of someone in his line of work. But this time, he’s insulting a Sith.

She can't say she minds the idea of Knash sassing a Sith - it won't end well for him, but there's a small pleasure in hearing someone mouth off to them. It had been Sith acolytes that caught her sneaking into that tomb and therefore it had been Sith that had put this stupid collar around her neck. The damn thing itches too, keeps her up at all hours of the day and night as if to rub it in her face that she's right back where she started. Damn Imperials and their damn slavery.

"A Sith who'd like to be moving on," a cutting voice replies. Huh, Vette pauses for a second. That's not the voice I was expecting. Definitely a woman then, and probably young.

Maybe even the same age as Vette herself. Her Sith experiences had involved mostly adult men, all of them gross. The one who’d captured her had been pale as a klorslug larva and just as slimy. Logically she knows that Sith don’t just spring into being fully grown, all veins, foul temper, and wandering hands; she’d even seen young acolytes when they dragged her into the bowels of the Academy. But still, surprising.

"...Of course," Hah, Knash got snapped at by a Sith - the best thing she’s heard since being locked up.

The door slides open and Vette subtlety cranes her neck to get a good look at the Sith that has chosen to grace their presence today. On the other side of the stuffy jail cells, she can see the three prisoners she shares space with trying to do the same. She can't blame them, odds are the Sith has come to kill at least one of them. That's just how Sith work.

As far as Vette is concerned, she's putting her money on the Sith not being there for her. The other three got transferred in recently and have much worse crimes than being a thieving alien, or so they’ve said. Not like they’ve had anything more interesting to do than chat to each other. One is some old soldier, a very likely target as the Empire treats failure like a plague that can only be stopped by rapid execution. She's not sure who the other two are, but she's pretty sure one is an assassin or a spy or something. Also a likely target for a Sith's wrath.

The one good thing about being a Twi'lek stuck in the Empire is that no one sees her as anyone of importance. At least their dumb 'humans first' bullshit can be easily exploited.

Or maybe not, Vette thinks as the Sith steps into the chamber.

The Sith's a Zabrak? Vette wasn't expecting that. Stars, the Empire is so hypocritical if they don't apply their dumb laws to force users. So what, species only counts if they don't have the potential to crush some poor guy's neck with the force? Just proves what a load of rubbish all that is.

And yup - Vette's right. The - surprisingly Zabrak - Sith goes straight for the first victim in the form of the ex-soldier.

Vette turns away. She doesn't particularly want to see someone get chopped up via lightsaber.

~*~

Darth Baras spares a glance at the stasis container which holds Tremel's severed hand, his latest trophy and perhaps not the only thing of value he'll end up taking away from Korriban. At first he had thought that Vemrin would be a perfectly acceptable new apprentice, someone who he could easily lead around on a leash. One more sparkling tool for his impressive collection - either as a hitter, a spy, or simple cannon fodder if need be.

But Vemrin seems to be fading as of late, losing his luster and potential as he's swiftly surpassed by another acolyte.

Vemrin is simmering with bloodlust, impatient to kill and prove his worth on the battlefield in the way many acolytes do. This girl is like that as well, he can sense the same rage in her heart and how desperate she is to release all that pent up anger. But she's also a tad calmer than Vemrin. All in all, a good thing, really. Often it is all too easy for Sith go insane with power - his sister is one perfect example.

Baras needs someone with more raw power, less ambition, and less of a tendency to fly off the handle as soon as a potential threat appears. He only takes the best and Vemrin is no longer that. A lightsaber that hisses and sputters, that has a will of its own beyond the will of its master’s, is not of much use to him. With a quiet chuckle he addresses the severed hand that is all that remains of his old enemy.

"It appears as though you were correct about that acolyte, Tremel." He taps the container and sends the liquid inside sloshing around. "It’s a pity that she removed you from the picture before you will be able to see what she’ll become under my tutelage. If only you had stayed out of my way."

And look, he can sense her presence now. She's approaching his chambers and her signature in the force is unwavering, even confident to some degree. Clearly her task has been successful.

"Enter." He waves his hand and the doors slide open.

She enters and kneels down before him, her head bowed in respect. “I’ve completed Overseer Abaron’s graduation trials. And as you ordered, I infiltrated his offices - the holos I retrieved are right here.”

From her uniform pockets, she retrieves the datapad Baras had given her and levitates it into his waiting hand.

Obedient as well as powerful. Tremel might not have known how to use her, but he certainly did have good taste.

"Well done. You have one final test before you," Baras clasps his hands behind his back and steps away from the severed hand so that she can see it clearly.

As he hoped, her eyes shift from him to the hand for just a moment, long enough for her to recognize who it belonged to. And then her eyes flicker back to him, without a single emotion changing on her face. Guiltless too. Excellent.

"You need a lightsaber and only one will do - I want you to retrieve an ancient lightsaber from the tomb of Naga Sadow."

It actually isn't necessary - most could be given a crystal, a word of direction, and then create a perfectly acceptable lightsaber. But in this case, Baras wants to throw her straight into the worst situation possible. If she survives, she's worth it. He thought Vemrin was the best potential candidate, but he never threw him into the fire like this. He has to make sure she’s the real deal before wasting time on her. No more coddling his apprentices.

And he wants to see how she’ll kill Vemrin. There are few places in or outside of the Academy where acolytes can reasonably kill one another, but that tomb is one of them. How she kills her enemies will determine where her best place in his forces will be. Is she a swift executioner, or a savage brawler?

"Yes, my lord," she intones. She's not afraid, or well she is but she hides it admirably.

It's not a hopeless task and she'll be expected to complete more challenging if he takes her as his apprentice. He won't make it impossible for her, although he hopes saddling her with a slave will be a neat handicap. “There’s a Twi’lek slave in the cells who will know how to enter the tomb,” he tells her, “fetch her and force her to open the way for you. Once you are inside, there should be nothing blocking your way to reach the lightsaber. It is a simple enough task- do not fail me."

"Of course not, my lord."

"Oh," Baras pauses. "One more issue. Vemrin will try to stop you. I will be disappointed if you show him mercy."

He would be too. If his latest apprentice just lets her biggest rival go without at least a bit of torture, then what sort of Sith will she be? A calm, and steady mind are all well and good. But any mercy must be weeded out at once. Nip it in the bud, as it were. If she proves herself to be worth his time, then he’ll need to ensure no sentiment will get in her way further down the line.

“As you command, my lord Baras," she says flatly, bowing once more before turning and leaving his chambers.

Once the door closes behind her, Baras turns back to Tremel's hand.

"To the victor go the spoils, old friend."

~*~

Gimrizh stares down at the sleeping form of the jailer. Knash, if she remembers correctly. The man is leaned against the wall and lightly snoring. How irritating. Low security does not excuse sleeping on the job. She nudges him with her foot.

"I have another task for you," she orders.

Her rudeness does the trick. Knash jolts awake and scrambles away from the wall he has been using as a pillow. He fumbles for a moment, almost saluting, almost bowing. "I uh- yes?" He eventually settles on clasping his hands behind his back. He would almost look like a professional, if not for the half-asleep look on his face.

Oh well. He hardly matters and she’s not in a place of any real power over him. "I require one of your prisoners, a Twi'lek woman," she informs him, "Lord Baras will have sent the forms ahead and she will be released into my custody."

"Alright," Knash replies with a shrug and gestures for her to follow him into the cells. "There's only one prisoner currently here who fits that description - most Twi'lek prisoners get sent straight to the slave camps they escaped from. This one didn’t have a collar with identification on it, and we couldn’t find anything to ID her when we picked her up. The Inquisitors have had a couple turns at her - gotta find out who sent her to break into the tombs."

She gives Knash a nod as they enter a room filled with cells. It's very familiar, the Academy doesn't have large jail cells as most prisoners are sent off to Ziost or Dromund Kaas, and this is the same place she was sent to judge three prisoners on Tremel's request. That had not been the most pleasant of experiences, and Tremel's resulting lectures had been worrying, to say the least.

His reminders ring heavy in her ears, even now. She does vaguely remember a Twi'lek woman being locked up here though. That must be her new associate.

"That's the Twi'lek," Knash says, pointing to the only occupied cell in the room. It is the same woman as before, probably only a year or two younger than Gimrizh herself and looking up at her with shockingly purple eyes. Gimrizh has met Twi'leks before, back in her classes in Institute Five, but they had all been Sith like herself, with red or orange eyes. Perhaps purple is a normal eye color among Twi'leks. It isn’t like she’d know.

"Hey there," the woman says with false cheer, wiggling her fingers briefly at Knash, "Looks like your Sithy friend is back."

Knash gives her an almost gleeful glare. "Learn respect." And then he presses a button on a small controller and oh -

It's an electroshock collar.

The Twi'lek falls like a sack of bricks, twitching as the electricity runs through her. The way her limbs jerk uncontrollably makes Gimrizh wince, even as the woman wraps her arms around her chest and pinches her eyes shut to still herself. Finally it stops and the woman gets back on her feet like nothing has happened.

She even tosses one of her lekku over her shoulder. “Really? This is getting old. You lot aren’t very creative.”

How many times must she have been exposed to electroshock torture to get used to it like that? Knash did say that the Inquisitors had interrogated her, but Gimrizh’s studies hint towards the Inquisitors often utilizing far more subtle methods than a handful of force lightning.

"She's a pest. Kept making annoying bird noises for about a week once. Best to keep an eye on her," Knash instructs, "And I suppose this is yours now."

He drops the controller into Gimrizh's hand. It's quickly tucked out of sight before she has to look at it any longer than necessary.

Knash deactivates the glowing barrier field and the woman inside scrambles out as soon as physically possible.

"Okay, I’m not complaining but why are you letting me go?" she demands.

"This Sith is your new master now," Knash tells her gleefully, "You'll be serving her however she sees fit. Good luck."

The Twi'lek’s blue skin pales. She looks apprehensive at Gimrizh, as though facing down a rabid acklay. It might be rude, but from her perspective, Gimrizh can understand such fear. Sith don't have a pleasant reputation for a very good reason, and most are the same staunch blood purists that would see a Twi'lek in chains for no reason other than their lekku.

"Come with me and get any confiscated weapons you need," is what she tells the Twi'lek instead, and turns on her heels, "I’m in a bit of a hurry."

And then the Twi'lek is hurrying to catch up and dogging her footsteps out of the bowels of the Academy. She rushes by one of the guard desks and retrieves a weapons belt outfitted with two blasters and a series of odd contraptions, slinging it across her waist.

"So uh," the Twi'lek gives a nervous sort of cough, "What exactly do you need me to... do? Of course, if the answer is 'nothing' I'll be thrilled, but I doubt it."

"You managed to break into the tomb of Naga Sadow," Gimrizh reminds her, "which isn't a feat most can claim, and to be honest, it's knowledge limited to only a few. Although you were captured the last time you attempted to do so, this time our expedition has been sanctioned by Darth Baras. I want you to put your skills to use without the interference you faced last time.”

The Twi’lek skids to a stop. “You want me to go back there?” she gapes at Gimrizh, incredulous. “Are you completely insane?”

“No, I am not.” She might be. Her actions last week - she won’t think about them. If she stops to consider what she did and why, she might end up turning herself into the Inquisitors for treason. “I’ve been ordered to retrieve a lightsaber from the tomb and I’ve been ordered to take you with me.”

“A lightsaber? All this trouble for a lightsaber? Can’t you just, I don’t know, make one?”

It’s a fair question, and one she's curious about herself. While most of Naga Sadow's treasure horde has been protected over the years, there's still a number of excavation projects underway and lesser artifacts that the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge doesn't care about. One of Sadow's many lightsabers would hardly be noticed. But it would be easier for her to craft one. She understands the concept well enough.

Someone else’s lightsaber feels impersonal. She’s never really had many things of her own, and she’d been almost looking forward to crafting a lightsaber. Something that was hers right down to the core.

Still. The appeal of using one that might have graced the hand of such a respected Sith makes part of her long for it, long for something that might help her fit in just as much as her horns and tattoos make her stand out. If she has Naga Sadow’s lightsaber, no one can deny that she’s supposed to be a Sith.

“Orders are orders.” If she fails Baras, she knows there will be consequences. Besides, after Tremel pushed her up into the Academy a year before she was supposed to be transferred, any failure whatsoever will only guarantee her downfall. Like it or not, this is her only chance to fulfil her greatest desire and become Sith. She's spent her whole life preparing for this - she's not failing now.

“That’s stupid," the Twi'lek snaps back with such a lack of care that it surprises Gimrizh. "Have you ever even used a lightsaber before?”

“Once,” she replies, her stomach twisting as she tries not to remember what had happened the last time she’d had a lightsaber in her hand.

“Are you lying?”

“No. Besides, I have confidence that if you got in once, you can pull it off again.”

The Twi’lek holds up a very confused finger. “Did you just compliment me? Wait, nevermind. I probably don’t want to know.”

Explanation finished, Gimrizh sets off down the corridor again.

They’ll have to take a speeder five hours to the north to get closer to the tomb and from there on out there will be near constant danger. All sorts of beasts, native to Korriban and almost as old as the tombs themselves, have been left to roam as they please, since much of the planet is a historical sanctuary protected by the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge. If the wildlife isn’t dangerous enough on it’s own, there's sure to be other opportunistic acolytes looking for old treasure - or simply acolytes taking advantage of the fact that there's no way to enforce the Academy's no-killing rule in the more dangerous tombs.

Of course, getting out will be easier than getting in, as she’ll have a lightsaber on the way out. Unless Vemrin shows up. Of course he’ll show up, what is she thinking? He’s been antagonistic towards her since day one and there’s no way he’ll pass up a chance to try and kill her away from the eyes of the Academy Overseers.

Actually… She can’t keep referring to the woman as simple ‘the Twi’lek’. “What’s your name?”

The Twi’lek looks a bit surprised again, “Oh, I’m Vette. I’d shake your hand but I don't think that’s how Sith do things.”

Vette. Strange name, but again, how would she know? She hasn’t been off Korriban since she was two and she doesn’t exactly know many Twi’leks. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Vette,” she says, “I’m Gimrizh Korribanil, of Institute Five.”

“I know who you are,” Vette says thoughtfully. “Or I sort of know who you are. You were the Sith that was sent to deal with those prisoners.”

“Yes.”

“Thanks for not killing any of them, by the way. The jail smelled bad enough already. Also, you know, prison is boring, we chatted and I kinda was starting to like them.”

Gimrizh flinches. “I should have killed some of them.”

“What? Which ones? None of ‘em seemed that bad to me.”

“The Bith, at least.”

“Why?” Vette narrows her eyes, but Gimrizh doesn’t think the woman is angry, not yet. More curious perhaps. “Because he’s not human, or because your bosses know that he’s not human?”

“What’s the difference?”

As they step out into the dry chill of Korriban, Vette has no reply. Instead she just hums thoughtfully and continues to give Gimrizh that strange, unnerving look as they load up a standard issue Academy landspeeder.

~*~

Pain echos in Tremel’s arm. A medical stasis field keeps the agony at bay and prevents blood loss or infection, yet it cannot do everything and so he must tap into the dark side, grit his teeth, and ignore the injury.

The cold winds of Korriban at night whip around him. On any other night like this, he would be back in the central Academy. Perhaps he would be in his office, wrapping up the last vestiges of his work into the early morning, or maybe he’d be having a late dinner with Eskella - but he might never see her again. Far in the distance glow the bright lights of the Academy, and if he turns around to look behind him, he can make out the high beams of a landspeeder making its way towards Institute Seven.

He stands with his back to the small light corvette and waits as the figure running towards him on the horizon grows in size.

The figure is a man - a Jedi, although Tremel has promised to attempt to get along with the man, at least until they are safely off world. “My apologies for running late,” the Jedi says. He comes to a stop in front of Tremel and has to catch his breath. “I had a few unfortunate difficulties in escaping.”

Tremel turns his nose up at the man. “And here I thought the Inquisitors were letting you go.”

“They needed to convince me I was escaping,” the Jedi replies, scratching the back of his neck almost sheepishly. “I am… not in the best of form.”

“Then we should leave shortly, as my departure from this planet is shockingly less legitimate than yours.”

“Yes, I know. Gimrizh told me. I’m impressed with her bravery.”

Bravery? As if it was something so righteous. Jedi are all fools. “She is young, and to her Lord Baras is a vague shadow of a threat that she does not yet comprehend. She believes him to be the same as the Institute Overseers that she has dealt with all her life. To defy Baras is a game she thinks herself practiced at.”

The Jedi frowns. “She was brave to tell me the truth.”

Tremel resists the urge to roll his eyes and instead stands back to let the Jedi unlock the ship. “The only reason she told you the truth was because the planet in question you’re protecting is Mirial. Had it been anywhere else, she would have followed the Overseer’s plan.”

“You are a very pessimistic man. Are all Sith so?”

“Be silent and pilot this damn thing.”

~*~

Vette leans outside Darth Baras’s office doors. “I don’t want to see this. Can I not see this? He’s just going to yell at you and be… awful?”

“Very well. Please don’t wander off.” Gimrizh grabs Vemrin’s handcuffs and hauls him into Baras’s office without the Twi’lek behind her.

Her fellow acolyte struggles pointlessly in the thick metal restraints, and the obscenities he’d been cursing earlier have been muffled ever since Vette shoved a strip of cloth into his mouth - for which Gimrizh finds herself being quite grateful. She might be used to the insults against her species that Vemrin had been hurling, but that doesn’t mean she’d enjoyed listening to them.

Gimrizh throws Vemrin onto the floor of Baras’s office and then drops to one knee, head bowed before her new master. “My lord. I’ve retrieved one of Naga Sadow’s lightsabers.”

“Ah, I see. Did the slave serve you well?” Baras tilts his head slightly and she thinks he’s examining the weapon that is now clipped to her belt.

The lightsaber - her new lightsaber - is an older model. It’s grip is wrapped in bantha leather that’s been worn thin by age, and some of the buttons have rusted to the point where she will need to oil them and perhaps even replace them if she ever wants to adjust the length of the blade. Even the metal is dented from use, scratched, and eaten away in places. She should really clean it. Once it shines it’ll work far better.

It could be even better. She still wants to change it. Some part of her wants to just take the crystal and start from scratch. But then it would not be Naga Sadow’s lightsaber, it would just be nothing at all.

It’s her lightsaber now, it just doesn’t feel that way. It doesn’t fit her hand as it should, it feels borrowed, wrong, like a piece of valuable jewelry handed to a child.

“Yes,” she tells Baras. “Thank you for allowing me to use her.”

She finds herself beginning to genuinely like Vette. The Twi’lek is unlike anyone she’s met before. Brash, to be sure, but not grating. Funny, with a complete disregard for the rules in a way that makes Gimrizh’s hearts race, and she seems possessed of the uncanny ability to lighten even the dreariest of situations. Gimrizh is almost envious of that.

Baras clasps his hands behind his back. “You may keep her, if you find her of use.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Did you have any difficulty?”

“No, my lord.”

“Any… unforeseen complications?”

“... No, my lord.”

“Then why,” Baras demands, gesturing angrily towards Vemrin, “have you brought this back here?”

Shit.

When Baras had said no mercy - she’d assumed he meant that she was not to allow Vemrin to escape. Was she wrong - no. That’s not possible. She’s captured him and brought him back to face punishment for breaking the rules that prohibit attempted murder between acolytes. She had even brought him to Baras instead of one of the Academy Head Overseers, as she had presumed, given Baras’s secretive and often somewhat insidious nature, that Baras would prefer to handle the matter of Vemrin’s exile from Korriban himself.

She struggles to keep that emotional turmoil to herself but can’t help asking - “My lord? I don’t understand?”

With a tug of the force, Baras drags Vemrin to his feet until the acolyte is dangling an inch above the ground. Then Baras draws his lightsaber and cuts Vemrin’s head off.

“I expect my apprentices to take out their own trash.”

Blood pools on the shiny office floor and the familiar smell of burnt flesh burns in Gimrizh’s lungs and she can’t look - can’t look at Vemrin’s head - can’t cough out the smell - can’t move or shake because Baras will see -

She draws in a deep breath. Doesn’t gag. Forces herself to nod calmly at her new master. “My apologies. I will do so in the future.”

“Meet me in Kaas City within the month for your next assignment. During that free time, I suggest you sort out the paperwork for your official promotion to apprentice, and I expect you to handle your own transportation and accumulation of any equipment you may need.” Baras turns away from her, and from the angle of his head she thinks he’s looking at the jar containing Tremel’s hand. “Oh, and send someone to clean up Vemrin’s mess.”

“Yes, my lord - my master.”

She keeps her eyes pressed tightly shut until the doors of his office slide closed behind her back.

“How did it go?“ Vette takes a closer look at Gimrizh’s pallid face under the dark lines of her tattoos. “Oh shit. That bad?”

“We - “ Gimrizh clears her throat. “We need to travel to Dromund Kaas. Right away. Darth Baras is expecting us in Kaas City, and there is work that must be done before we rendezvous with him, and I need to find clothes because all I own are Academy uniforms, and - and I need to find a cleaner.”

“Cleaner?” Vette raises an eyebrow and then looks slightly ill. “Well. I can’t say I’m sorry to see that guy go, but I’m glad I didn’t have to… actually see him go, you know? You pack your bags, I’ll fetch a cleaner, okay?”

“Meet me by the front entrance in ten minutes.”

“You got it.”

Gimrizh’s hands are shaking.

They don’t stop shaking even after three different turbolift rides to the dormitory wing and they’re still shaking as she packs everything she owns into one small bag that she can easily carry over one shoulder.

Punishment for breaking the rules is a whipping. Or it’s missed meals, or a session with the Inquisitors, or if it’s severe enough, exile from Korriban and prohibition of ever becoming Sith but it’s not - it is not execution. This is not Academy sanctioned. Even if Vemrin had killed her, he probably would have faced only a minor punishment. When she had killed - when she was back in Institute Five she had never experienced more severe punishment than a month in an Inquisitor’s custody.

If she fails Darth Baras, she will die.

That’s unacceptable. She won’t entertain that possibility. She’ll do as he says and follow orders and she won’t make herself a liability or cause trouble.

Stars. She’s already in trouble and she hasn’t even started in his service yet. If he finds out that she told Quorian Dorjis the truth before letting the Jedi go - that was an idiotic mistake of her’s to make. She can’t keep letting her mind be clouded like this.

“With this, Mirial will be safer."

One short sentence from Quorian and she’d practically betrayed the Sith, the one thing she holds dearest to her - the thing she has to hold most sacred.

It won’t happen again. Being Sith, a proper Sith, will let her unlock the full potential of her anger and thus, the dark side. Then she need not think about this again and she can re-dedicate herself to serving the Sith.

By the time she and her small bag are walking through the massive entryway out of the Academy, her breathing has calmed and her eyes are clear.

She nods at Vette’s cheeky wave and she’s collected herself decently enough once they start heading towards the shuttle pads that can take them to Dromund Kaas.

She scans her ID card at the shuttle terminal and -

“Not accepted?”

Vette peers over to stare at the holo screen. “You don’t have money. Oh, and it still lists you as an acolyte, so you don’t get free trips around imp space or something? Does Darth whatsit know?”

Don’t call him that,” Gimrizh hisses under her breath. She darts her eyes around to make sure that no one else milling around the shuttle depot heard Vette’s remarks and thank the stars they’re in the clear. “I am supposed to complete my paperwork in Kaas City, but if I can’t get there then - of course. Lord Baras said I was responsible for my own transportation. He’s still testing me.” She pauses. “Or hazing me.”

“I’ll go with hazing,” Vette replies.

Either way, they’ve got no transport off planet. Finally leaving Korriban had seemed too good to be true.

Vette nudges Gimrizh to the side and starts scrolling through the list of flights to Dromund Kaas, and then the ones off Korriban, and then some strange holonet site that Gimrizh is pretty sure requires two very illegal proxy servers to even view. “Are you sure you should be doing that?” she asks doubtfully. “It could trigger alarms in the Academy.”

“Nah,” Vette says cheerfully. “I can fuck with their security long enough. Besides, I think I’ve got it. It’s thirty credits for two people to Dromund Kaas, but only ten to head to Ord Radama on a cargo freighter, and then from there we can sweet talk our way onto a shuttle to the orbital station nearby and then there’s a massive Imperial ship called Black Talon leaving for Dromund Kaas that says they’re taking any Imps who can work for passage. Which we can. I’m assuming.”

Gimrizh blinks.

“Good, right? I know I’m good.”

“Yes. Sure. Okay.” She holds up a hand, “But we have no money, at all. How are we going to get ten credits?”

Vette sticks her tongue out thoughtfully and digs into her pockets. She retrieves a handful of credit chips, one jeweled bracelet, and an Academy security pass. “I’ve got eleven credits. We can even pick up a cheap can of soda from a vending machine on Ord Radama if we’re feeling fancy.”

“How did you get those?”

“Do you want the truth, or would you settle for a convincing lie?”

“Nevermind.”

~*~

One month, one truly ridiculous space battle, two short conversations with Grand Moff Kilran that left Gimrizh starry-eyed for hours, and a seemingly unending series of boring paperwork applications later, Vette stands outside Baras's chambers in Kaas City, feeling like a soggy out of place decoration.

Stern looking men and women in robes pass by, the vast majority human or purebloods. Some give her glares as they glide menacingly past her, or alternatively, pointedly turn their heads as though to prove to her that she is utterly beneath their notice and they simply can't bear to be forced to look at her for longer than necessary. The other half of them pay her about as much attention as they would a light fixture - which is to say, none at all. What a bunch of snobs.

It's not like blatant speciesism is something new coming from Sith, and she's determined not to let it get to her.

Either way, being out here is far better than being back inside Baras's offices. Snobby Sith or not, nothing is making Vette go back in there. Not with that poor man screaming his head off.

A feeling of gratitude fills her, directed towards her surprising new master - or friend? Colleague?

Associate?

Vette isn't sure anymore.

But still, Gimrizh had let her leave the room as soon as the torture started. Thank the stars, every second of watching Baras pump that poor Republic spy full of lightning had been enough to to make Vette want to throw up.

She tries to wipe the rain off her lekku, with mixed success. All that really happens is a lot more rain gets on her clothes - clothes that Gimrizh bought her. Another mystery. Vette hadn't even asked, clothing hasn't been high on her priority list lately. But once they had arrived in Kaas City things had changed. Gimrizh had gotten her apprenticeship paperwork sorted out, they’d gotten her first paycheck and then... she had just given Vette money and told her to buy clothes and any additional weapons.

Which was really weird. Because even though it's been awhile since Vette has been a slave, it's not something she can ever forget. And slave owners do not take care to ensure that their slaves have warm clothes and they absolutely don't just give slaves money for things. They certainly don't encourage slaves to arm themselves. Vette didn't test it, but she's pretty sure if she had spent hours walking around the markets and returned without any money, having only bought antique holos of old operas, Gimrizh wouldn't have done anything.

Hells, Gimrizh hasn't even used the shock collar once. Not even during that disaster on Black Talon - which, for the record, had eventually worked out and was not her fault.

It's like Gimrizh keeps forgetting Vette's a slave.

Which is again, really weird. Sure, the fact that Gimrizh is a Zabrak, not a human and therefore less likely to buy into all that sub-human garbage has to be a factor. But it can't account for everything and she's still a Sith. Vette's seen her kill, seen her throw a Jedi padawan into a wall hard enough that the girl didn't get back up again. And she has yellow eyes. Vette's about ninety-nine percent certain yellow eyes - especially on Zabraks - are a Sith thing.

It's just that every Sith Vette's encountered - admittedly a small number - have treated her like shit. And Gimrizh hasn't.

"Vette."

Vette snaps to attention as Gimrizh walks up to her. "What's Baras making you do now?"

"He has sent me to fetch the Ravager," the Zabrak explains, already walking towards the Citadel exit, "It's supposed to be in an ancient Sith temple on Drumond Kaas, on Mognosk, a relatively deserted continent. We'll have to take a speeder to a reclamation site closer to the temple and go the rest of the way on foot."

Well that sounds utterly miserable. "Great, my cold will catch a cold," and Vette has just started drying out too, what a shame. “What’s this temple thing?”

“The Dark Temple,” Gimrizh tells her and oh great, that’s so much information to go off of because Vette totally knows so much about the Empire.

Vette rolls her eyes. “Yeah okay, so Sith suck at naming things.”

“It’s actually called Sajudzaioch -”

“I’m not going to try and pronounce that. What is the ‘Dark Temple’?”

“Mostly old and dangerous.”

“Uh. What’s so dangerous about a temple? I mean, besides a lack of structural integrity and the occasional falling chunk of rubble?”

“It was built thousands of years ago, during the Old Empire, and used as a Sith burial ground. But after the Great Hyperspace War, our Emperor started using it as a place to store both powerful Sith artifacts and his enemies' corpses. The echoes of the dark side are... powerful. Capable of possessing those without the protection of the force or with particularly weak minds.”

“...And you’re going in there?”

“I need the Ravager, and the Ravager is inside the Dark Temple. I’m on your side in this Vette, and I wouldn’t go in there if I didn’t have to.”

"What is this Ravager thing Baras needs? It doesn't sound very nice."

Gimrizh shakes her head. "No, I suppose it isn’t. It's a torture device. Grik Sinoson has thus far resisted Baras's methods of interrogation. More pressure is needed to make him break."

“Poor guy,” Vette shudders, "Baras is crazy, I only saw a few minutes of that but-”

"Be silent," Gimrizh hastily snaps at her, her eyes widening ever so slightly, "He is a spy against the Empire and deserves any punishment Lord Baras gives him."

"Wha-?" That's probably the first time Gimrizh has ever showed anger towards her. Also when did Baras become Lord Baras? And hells, Vette's said more anti-Imperial things before and Gimrizh had barely so much as batted an eye.

"Where are we, Vette?" Gimrizh whispers to her, "Look around you."

Oh right, Citadel full of Sith. "Okay I see your point," she concedes. And it's actually a pretty good point. Vette knows all too well what it's like to piss off Sith - lots of pain, some screaming, a surprisingly large amount of electricity, “But I thought… I mean....” she lowers her voice and leans her head closer the Zabrak, “You don’t like him either, right?”

Half his personality seems to be made of torture. The other half is probably made of beheading or murdering or something equally unpleasant.  

Gimrizh apparently ignores her question and steps out into the rain to hail a passing taxi speeder. “Once the Ravager is in Baras’ hands,” she says, “He’s sure to be quite busy extracting information from Sinoson and then even busier acting on it. I’m certain that once he’s thoroughly occupied we’ll have a few hours of free time.”

Well that’s a complete non-sequitur. Although never let it be said that Vette doesn’t appreciate the value of vacation time. “Great, I’ll throw a party?”

Gimrizh gives her a look that clearly states she’s missed a key point in the conversation. “How about I buy you a drink instead?”

What does- oh. Right. Vette gets it. “In a noisy, crowded cantina? Full of wandering law breakers, without a Sith lord in sight?”

“There are no law breakers in Kaas City - and I wouldn't allow myself to be seen in a cantina that catered to them, but yes. A loud bar, no way of being overheard.”

“Sounds absolutely wonderful.”

A speeder pulls up to the platform and the pilot droid steps out to hold the door open for Gimrizh, enquiring about her destination in a measured polite voice. It’s a covered speeder, at least. Vette’s seen a large number of open cockpit models on Drumond Kaas already and the idea of those being popular boggles her mind. Why would anyone want to get more wet than they already do simply by existing on this planet?

“Then I’ll meet up with you when I get back,” Gimrizh says dismissively, stepping into the speeder, “Try to be careful.”

As careful as she can be on Imperial Center. Even though it’s filled to the brim with soldiers and officers, there’s still a lot of danger on this planet. Case in point, this temple thing filled with evil ghosts that possess people. Which Gimrizh, the crazy maniac, is about to throw herself right into on a quest to retrieve an ancient torture device.

How is this suddenly Vette’s life? Sure, she did a lot of crazy shit during her stint as a pirate, but piracy involves a lot more shooting than lightsabers. And it certainly has a lot fewer evil ghosts.

The pilot droid is about to close the speeder door. What a miserable trip that’ll be. Being stuck in the rain, and having to walk all the way to an insane temple. A chill runs down her spine at the thought.

Oh hells.

“Wait!” Vette cries, rushing out into the pouring rain after Gimrizh, “I’m going with you!”

Gimrizh puts her boot between the cab and the closing door. "I thought you would prefer to remain away?"

Does she ever. Vette's going as crazy as the Sith. "Ugh. Just let me in before I change my mind."

~*~

The Ravager is a success.

To be honest, Gimrizh has been almost hoping that it wouldn't work. Of course, those thoughts are treason. She stuffs the feelings away hurriedly - if Baras got the barest whiff of treason her head would join Vemrin's. Instead she hands over the device and watches without interference as the spy starts to divulge all the information that he had previously been so good at keeping secret. His words come out in pants and whispers, punctuated by screams and Gimrizh is glad Vette doesn't have to see this.

The information is dim. A new apprentice who can read people's intent? Being taught by Nomen Karr, Baras' most hated rival? It doesn't bode well for his extensive spy network and it doesn't bode well for Gimrizh.

Baras barks out his orders and she hurries out of his chambers, grateful not to be the object of his wrath this time.

Besides, she has promised Vette a drink and an explanation and only one of those sounds appealing.

The Twi'lek is waiting in the Citadel's central chamber, a huge huge hexagonal tube, crisscrossed with platforms and multilevel walkways that lead to the multitudinous offices and libraries and laboratories that the Sith Order demands. It's a beautiful place, and Gimrizh can feel the ebb and flow of the dark side here, like an undercurrent in the air. It's a side effect of both the strong dark presence on Dromund Kaas and the over abundance of powerful Sith Lords who have chosen to make this place their permanent dwelling.

"Thank hells you're finally done," Vette sighs with relief. "This place is awful. If it’s supposed to be an educational center, all it really teaches you is how to be bored and terrified at the same time."

But, for better or worse, Vette isn’t force sensitive in the slightest and thus has no idea what this place feels like.

“We have a new lead,” Gimrizh tells her, “We have to be at hangar bay B1-9 before the end of the day. We’re being sent to Balmorra.”

Vette crosses her arms with a huff, “Great. More work.”

“But first, we do have time for that drink.”

Now you’re speaking my language.”

There aren't a large number of cantinas in Kaas City, not of the sort Gimrizh is looking for. Considering that they're in the heart of the Empire, there's a lot of officers' bars and enlisted-personnel-only dives. Quite a number of cantinas that cater specifically to bounty hunters or the Mandalorians, given how much traffic Kaas City sees from them. Obviously those don't work- any place where they will look out of place is off the list. Kaas might be the largest Imperial city off Ziost and it's easy enough to vanish here, but she won't kid herself by thinking that there aren't spies in the city - a good portion of which report back to Baras.

Eventually she and Vette find their way to a broad service cantina, the Nexus Room.

They find a small corner table in the back, away from the crowded bar but still covered up by a cacophony of other noises. The place is filled to the brim with assorted characters - no other Sith, fortunately - a couple bounty hunters, a speeder racing gang comprised of teenagers, a smattering of off duty troopers. While Vette grabs them both drinks, Gimrizh quickly checks the table for listening devices.

Vette practically throws herself at her chair and sprawls out luxuriously. She pushes a large pink colored drink towards Gimrizh and takes a hearty sip of her own drink- something amber colored and fragrant.

“Got you a Ryloth Sunset,” she says with a grin, “And lemmie tell you, it tastes like how a Ryloth sunset looks.”

Hesitantly, Gimrizh indulges in the alcoholic concoction. “It’s… fruity?” she guesses.

“Yeah that'd be the fruit. It's got that, tihaar, and something Corellian. Corellian bitters maybe? I’m not actually sure.” Vette frowns, “You’re not really an alcohol sort of girl, are you?”

“No,” Gimrizh takes another sip. It’s actually not bad, once she gets past the way it sort of burns her throat. “Never drank before.”

Vette gapes. “Really?! You’re kidding! You’ve never had a drink before?”

“I’m not sure if you noticed Vette, but Korriban isn’t exactly a vacation.”

“Yeah, but come on? You can’t have spent all your time on that planet.”

And as usual Vette is taking this conversation in the wrong direction. Gimrizh drags her finger over the rim of her glass and gives Vette a teasing look. “And I thought we were here because you had a number of burning questions concerning Baras? Of course, if you want to spend that time discussing how many drinks I’ve never had I’m sure we can change our plans for the evening.”

Extreme conflict marrs Vette’s face for a minute while she thoroughly considers both of the promising options. “...Fine. I’ll get you drunk later.”

“As I thought.”

Vette sets her glass down on the table and levels Gimrizh with a frank sort of look, “So. Baras. I’ll be honest here, I don’t get what’s up with you and him at all.”

Gimrizh snorts into her drink. Frankly, she barely gets it herself and it's actually happening to her. “You’ll have to be a little more specific.”

“So he’s a rude asshole,” Vette starts out. “When you add that with his awful personality and general torturing habits, he ends up being a pretty shitty sort of guy. I personally am not overly fond of him. And to be honest, I thought you hated him too.”

Well she’s not actually wrong about any of those points. “He’s my master,” Gimrizh reminds her. “He provides me with money and security, as well as instructs me in the ways of the Sith - how else do you think I’m going to pay our tab? Why should I hate him?”

Vette huffs and manages to look surprisingly stern. “Don’t try and bullshit me, okay? I can’t deny all that stuff about money and whatever, cause I don’t actually know who specifically in the Empire pays you and for what - that paperwork was so boring, I tuned half of it out. But as far as I’ve seen? He barely teaches you anything and treats you like a servant instead of an apprentice. He’s had you running all over Dromund Kaas since the moment we got here, going to some really awful, really dangerous places. Hells, he’s sending you to Balmorra! A krething war zone! And then he can hardly muster the energy to be grateful for all the times you risk your neck for him?”

“He’s my master, Vette.” Gimrizh stresses.

“Yeah so?” Vette demands, crossing her arms.

She isn’t sure how best to explain it. Vette didn’t grow up on Korriban, she doesn’t know the Sith, she hasn’t seen the cruelty of the Institute Overseers or the mercilessness of the dark lords that treat the Academy like their own apprentice hunting ground. She hasn’t heard the stories of hundreds of acolytes dying over the years, not for lack of skill but because they hadn’t the luck or connections to win an apprenticeship quickly, and instead were assigned more menial, increasingly dangerous tasks in the harsh tomb-filled wilderness of Korriban, year after year while waiting for a deployment.

Gimrizh stares absently at the shimmery pink liquid in her hands, as though it will reveal the proper order to string her words together. “I am very, very lucky to have a master at all,” she finally says, “For the acolytes who manage to pass their trials and become Sith, there are four paths that they can take. They can stay on Korriban until an opportunity for them to go off world arises - often in the form of an immediate deployment to wherever the Empire most needs fighters. They can serve as an apprentice under a less experienced lord, who might have a dozen other students. Some remain on Korriban to pursue a position that requires higher education - anything in the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge, for example. But very few are taken on as apprentices by powerful lords, like Baras. Hate him or not, he is powerful.”

“So you’re a one in a million kinda Sith, huh?” Vette asks, “But doesn’t Baras have other apprentices too? Besides you?”

She nods. “Yes. More than most lords in his position actually. He treats his apprentices much like extensions of his spy network. From what I’ve seen and heard at least, I’m one of only two apprentices he has who fulfil combat roles. Only he knows where all of them are, and even his apprentices who have moved on from his tutelage still work for him.”

Vette still doesn’t seem to quite get it. “Wouldn’t you be better as an apprentice to someone who gave more of a damn about you? Baras can’t be your only option.”

“You don’t know what other Sith Lords are like,” Gimrizh says, running her fingers through her short hair, “Many of them only take an apprentice for a year - toss that apprentice a promotion, and then start again. I’d have nowhere to go but straight to the front lines after something like that.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad. At least you’d be free.”

Freedom isn’t - it’s not a possibility for Gimrizh. That’s not freedom, it’s a death trap. She knows Vette’s mind is probably imagining some grand escape plan, going AWOL and taking a bar hopping tour of the galaxy. “No. I’d be captured or killed by a Jedi - I’d still be far too inexperienced. Most Sith spend two years or more in the Academy, and I already skipped my final year at Institute Five. I’m on the lowest skill rung for Sith.”

“Okay,” Vette admits, grimacing, “Capture doesn’t sound great. That’s why you don’t care that he treats you like something stuck on the bottom of his shoe? I’m sure there’s got to be better masters for you to learn from?”

If only it were that simple, “No. For… reasons not my own, I was pushed to take the trials and enter the Academy a year before I was supposed to. I was thrown in Baras’s path and my only choices were to obey or let him run me down. If I hadn’t been pushed up, I could potentially abandon my apprenticeship and attempt to find another master, although even then my chances would be slim because I'm a Zabrak. But because of my history, I’m in a sink or swim position. No other Lord would take on a Sith who was pushed up and then washed out. He knew that when he took me as an apprentice, and as a result, I know a good deal of his secrets because he knows that I'm trapped with him. If I left? Baras would destroy me.”

“Define destroy?” There’s a preemptive cringe on Vette’s face as she asks the question.

She’d be denounced as a conman and fraud first. She’s run through these possible outcomes in her head before, over and over. All the things she’s tried to hide over the years - everything on Institute Five - everything would come to light. He’d paint her as a traitor to the Empire and as a monster to the Republic so that no one would believe the truths about him. Sith would be out for her blood, and if for some miraculous reason she survives the worst that angry Sith can throw at her? She’d vanish into the night and end up on a slab for Baras to play with before disposal, just like that Republic agent.

Vette doesn’t need to hear all the potentially-gory details. “Remember how Vemrin’s head became forcefully unacquainted with his body?”

Silence reigns over their table after her little speech. The loud raucous noise of the cantina seems faded even as it booms in their ears.

Vette drains her glass. “Well, that explains some things.”

“I obey him without question. I bow to him so that I can survive. I do what he tells me so that I can live another day.” Gimrizh tells her with complete honesty. "If I've learned anything of Baras's nature during the short time serving him, it's that he is both ruthless enough to punish even the slightest failure with the death penalty, and that he is situated well enough to get away with it."

Baras is too dangerous for her to cross, even in the slightest way. If he ever gets the idea that she is anything but utterly subservient to him then she will suddenly drop in value.

“So that’s why you’re so stiff when you talk to him,” Vette muses. “You act like you’re made of wood you know, all you do is say ‘yes master’ and stand there emotionlessly. It’s really damn weird.”

That’s by design. It’s nice to know it’s working on Vette at least. “I don’t want him to know anything about me,” she tells Vette, “not my personality, not my habits, not even how I regularly talk.”

Vette nods slowly in agreement. “I get it.”

“Really?” Gimrizh asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, I mean, obviously I don’t get anything to do with the force,” Vette says. “But don't forget, I’ve been a slave for a long time. Hell, I was born a slave.”

Of course. Gimrizh has been fortunate in that her life, as far as she knows, has never involved slavery - Vette was dealt a much worse hand in life. “I’m sorry.”

Vette tries to nonchalantly shrug it off, but her relaxed posture slips and she seems to shrink into herself. “My point is - I can relate. I get what you’re going through with Baras. I had to do a lot of things I hated, and I had to pretend I liked them sometimes. Talking back to an owner gets you in a world of pain, especially when you’re owned by crime lords like I was. Trying to escape ain’t worth it either. So yeah, I kinda get it. Sometimes you can’t try and get out. Sometimes all you can do is survive.”

“I’m so sorry,” Gimrizh says quietly. “How did you get out of that?”

A small smirk slips back onto Vette’s face. It must be a happier memory for her. “Pirates, actually. But enough about me. I think I’m going to get a Corellian whiskey and then we need to head to that whatever docking bay’s taking us to Balmorra.”

“Hangar bay B1-9,” Gimrizh reminds her.

“Yeah that.”

Vette hastily gets up and heads over to the bar for a refill. Alone, Gimrizh deflates. She doesn’t want to be stuck serving Baras forever but she can’t just leave. Her only hope is for someone to eventually take out Baras and leave her free to run away and find a nicer corner of the Empire where she can spend her days in service.

Trying to imitate what she’s seen Vette do, Gimrizh throws her drink back and empties the whole glass.

And then promptly almost throws up. Oh hells that’s awful. She’s never copying Vette again. Out of desire to stop smelling alcohol, she tosses a few of her new credit chips onto the table, signals the bartender, and then leaves.

Outside in the cold, damp air of Kaas City, her head clears. She checks her chrono. Nine hours till they depart for Balmorra - what sort of hyperdrive will her ship have? A week, perhaps, till they arrive. A full week in hyperspace, with nothing but the cold and beautiful stars around them - no Overseers, no Baras, no classes to attend, or tests to take, and no trials. A week of doing what she wants for once. It sounds so idyllic she can hardly believe it’s real.

She fishes out her holocom and pulls up the frequency for her contact on Balmorra.

A mere second after she’s placed the call, someone picks up, and she’s greeted by a sharp looking officer. It’s hard to tell over the blue holo field, but something about his appearance strikes her as so meticulous that he could have walked off the front of an officers academy recruitment poster.

He blinks at her, confused and surprised as he takes in her appearance, and then tentatively asks, “Ah, you must be Lord Baras’s apprentice?”

“Yes - sorry, I’m not sure if my master contacted you already.” She clears her throat. This is her first real mission working with someone besides Vette, she needs to make a good impression. “I am Gimrizh Korribanil, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I was told you are to be my contact for my operation on Balmorra?”

“That’s correct, my lord.”

My lord? Why is he - but she isn’t a Lord of the Sith, not yet and probably not for a good many years. He probably outranks her, she’s just barely an apprentice, and even though she works directly under Baras, it’s not as though title transfers from her master to her.

“I’m Lieutenant Malavai Quinn,” he continues before pausing to type something into a computer terminal she can’t see. “Our communication channel is now secure, my lord. I’m sorry I’m not better prepared for your call, I only just received Lord Baras’s dossier,” he informs her, somewhat nervously, as though he’s rather flustered. “I regret to say I haven’t been able to read it yet, but I shall rectify that mistake as soon as possible, I assure you.”

“Oh, that’s quite alright. I can call back at a later time if this is inconvenient for you?”

He stares at her, his lips ever so slightly parted, as though trying to figure out if this is some sort of trap. “No,” he says after a moment’s deliberation. “No, my lord, as your contact I am at your disposal whenever is most convenient for you.”

Stars, she must sound like an idiot novice. “I see? Anyway, I was calling to inquire about what I should bring with me to Balmorra. I haven’t been given much information about my mission beyond which of my master’s spies I will be tracking, and I am not sure if there’s anything in particular that I would require. Also, I wanted to give you a heads up that I intend to depart Kaas City in nine standard hours, so I should arrive on Balmorra in just over a week.”

“Thank you,” he says, surprised, “The advance notice is appreciated. I’m sending you a file on Balmorra - it should make the situation clear. Please let me know if there are any additional preparations you would like me to make for your arrival.”

Sure enough, a datafile pops up on her holo screen. She opens it and quickly scans through the blocks of text. Most of it, the issues with Republic funded rebels at least, is familiar to her, although the scale of it seems quite different from what she remembers. The climate information is similarly new. “Forty-eight hour days?” She gapes at that line. “Oh fuck. I’m going to need a ridiculous amount of caf to get through that.”

His eyes widen ever so slightly at her levity, and then a small, almost-smile slips through his professionalism. “Personally, I’d recommend caffeine supplements.”

Now that’s an excellent idea. “I’ll take you up on that.”

“I’ll have some caf prepared for you upon your arrival then, shall I?”

“That would be wonderful, thank you so much.” She glances again at that horrid ‘forty-eight hour’ sentence, as though she can will it out of existence by glaring. “Oh - it’s - er, it’s the middle of the night for you, isn’t it? Shit, I’m so sorry - Ah - go back to bed.”

“... As you command?”

“I mean not if you don’t want to - I didn’t mean to wake you.”

Now that she looks, she can see faint dark circles under his eyes. “You didn’t. Lord Baras’s report woke me half an hour ago. And there is really no need to apologize, my lord.”

“Still.” Her free hand nervously fiddles with the hem of her sleeve. “I’ll let you get back to sleep. Unless there’s anything you need from me?”

“... No, my lord,” Quinn replies. “I look forward to working with you.”

She lets the holo blink out and then sighs, her head tipping back to rest against the rain-slick cantina wall.

~*~

"Oh my stars!" Vette squeals with uninhibited glee as she runs her eyes over every inch of the gleaming new ship. "We're traveling in style now! Let's see what she looks like inside!"

It's truly a beautiful ship. The design is sleek without incorporating the roundness of most Republic made vessels. It’s angular and streamlined, with a stunning black durasteel finish and chrome detailing. The gangplank folds elegantly down from the transom, leading towards the main hatch in a tantalizing sort of manner, as if practically begging the two of them to enter and take full advantage of the speed and maneuverability promised by the sleek design.

Gimrizh pins it as an Imperial Interceptor, although she is unsure exactly which classification it is. It's probably a newer model, one she's less familiar with. She hopes it’s a newer model. If it’s been around for ages, she’ll have to kick herself for never noticing it before.

And then all of a sudden Vette's grabbing her hand and dragging her up the gangplank, “Come on, come on! I want to see every inch of this place!”

Gim freezes up at the entirely unexpected physical contact, too surprised to say or do anything other than obediently follow Vette inside the ship’s hull.

The ship’s interior is equally stunning, decorated with the same luxurious taste that most Imperial vessels share. Their boots click sharply on the polished deck and the sound resonates throughout, echoing down the hall.

Gimrizh enters the bridge. The bridge is in the forward center of the ship, flanked on both sides by jutting out sections of the prow. There are two stations to control the ship’s blastercanons, and three seats, pilot, co-pilot, and whoever’s at the helm. That will be her, she supposes. Strange to think of herself commanding a ship when only a month or so ago she was merely an acolyte on Korriban.

But the best part of the ship isn’t the glowing holo of the galaxy or the sparklingly clean navigation consoles. The best part is the huge viewport that looks out onto the hangar bay. She can’t wait to get the first glimpse of the stars through the plexiglass.

She takes a seat and starts investigating the holo map, letting her hand run across the smooth durasteel, imagining what the faint hum of the engines will feel like once the ship powers up. With a flick of a switch, she turns the central power supply on, and the lights inside whirr to life, bathing the interior in a warm white glow. As if welcoming her, the computer terminal opens the holo input field and runs through a start-up sequence.

“This is Fury model Interceptor,” Gimrizh realizes. Of course she never noticed it before, she’s always dreamed of owning one of them, it had simply seemed so impossible that she ever would. “They’re top of the line for Sith - I’ve never seen one in person. Grand Moff Kilran helped design them, they’re the best in both maneuverability and firepower when it comes to anything larger than a gunship.” A blank name designation field catches her eyes. “It’s unnamed. This must be the newest possible model - brand new.”

Vette cheers, “Yes! I’ve always wanted to name a ship!”

Gimrizh coughs lightly, "Our ship, Vette."

“But I wanna name a ship,” Vette pouts, “Fine. I’ll just go find my quarters and sufficiently trash them.”

“Be on the bridge in half an hour,” Gimrizh reminds her, “We need to head to Balmorra and I need a co-pilot.” Or an actual pilot. She’s never flown anything before, and her flight simulation scores have always been rather pitifully low.

Vette just waves it off, “Yeah yeah, boss.”

Beneath Gimrizh’s fingers, a dozen switchboards and buttons and levers beg for attention, teasing her into wanting to try every single function of the ship. She forces herself to do one thing at a time and simply powers up the sublight drive.

The sooner she’s out into space, the happier she will be.

 

Chapter Text

~*~

They touch down on Balmorra around mid-morning, standard time.

The pink tinge in the orange of the rising sun on the horizon shines brightly through the bridge viewport as Vette maneuvers the ship into a landing bay at the Sobrik spaceport.

“Wow,” Vette groans, looking around the city. They’ve been making their way around the city on foot, instead of by speeder, so as to attract less attention. “This place is dismally bleak. And I’ve been on Korriban.”

It’s not exactly an incorrect statement, Gimrizh has to admit. Sobrik has the solemn, rigid architecture style that marks many Imperial cities, but without the stunning majesty of Dromund Kaas or even the occasionally picturesque harshness that marrs Korriban. Instead, Sobrik just looks dull and depressing. Smoke from bombings is visible over the rooftops, and heavy duty anti-spacecraft cannons are mounted to every other building. The picture it paints isn't one of Imperial splendor. It just looks like the last place standing in a planet that’s already been bombed to hells and back.

Even the people that mill about seem constantly worried, and there are few civilians visible. More common are squads of troopers or officers. The population is almost entirely human too, and some of the military personnel they pass give the two of them cold looks.

Vette throws one of the officers a glare. “Ugh. Are we there yet?”

Gimrizh checks the address of the office in front of them, “Actually, yes.”

"Really?"

"Vette, please."

Placing her hand on the key panel, Gimrizh slides open the doors only to be almost run over by a nervous corporal rushing out.

"Watch yourself!" She snaps, straightening up and brushing herself off. Really. She knows she doesn't look important but that's no reason to just run into her.

The corporal just gives her a dirty look before running off - apparently he either has urgent business or really wants to leave the office they've just arrived in.

"Rude," Vette mutters as they step through the foyer and into the main office.

Inside, the sharp looking officer that Gimrizh spoke with earlier greets them with far more politeness than the corporal. The first thing she notices upon seeing Lieutenant Quinn in person is that he's taller than she is by quite a few inches, although she supposes most people are, she's long since given up on the hope off an incredibly delayed growth spurt. The second thing she notices is that he almost looks cold - his hair is so dark there's almost a blue shine to it and he's even paler than everyone else on this gloomy planet seems to be.

“My lord,” he says, bowing to Gimrizh without the slightest hesitation. “It’s my honor to have you here on this mission.”

“I’m glad to meet you in person.” she replies, trying to be just as courteous to him as he is to her. “Thank you for the briefing packet you sent me, by the way. It was not the lightest of reading, but it was informative, and I’m grateful.”

“Are there any questions you have that I could answer?”

“Thank you, but your offer is unnecessary. It was very… comprehensive. I understand that I am here for Darth Baras’ spy, Commander Rylon?”

Quinn nods. There’s just the slightest hesitation as he pulls up a holo map, as though he’s nervous. “I should inform you that I have never undertaken a mission like this before. Normally, to ensure security, Lord Baras does not allow his agents to contact one another or even know their names. Up until this past week, I had no idea Commander Rylon was one of ours. As such, I have no specifics on the work he may or may not have been doing for the Empire while undercover.”

The desire not to know too many of Baras’s secrets is certainly one Gimrizh can agree with. It’s practical on Baras’s part, and she can’t blame Quinn for not digging into it too deeply. She could easily see Baras mistaking preparedness for treason. “That’s quite alright. If it becomes an issue, I can ask my master on your behalf.”

His lips twist into a confused frown at the idea of having her help him like that. And then something almost angry flickers through the confusion in his eyes - stars , reading him is a study in micro-expressions. “I assure you,” he replies, a little more stiff than before, “that I can handle any such difficulties on my own, my lord. This is, after all, my job. I am perfectly capable of tracking down Commander Rylon without needing to know such details.”

Vette snickers at the doorway. “Uh, yeah… she wasn’t being rude, you know. Don’t be so stiff-necked about a sincere offer of help.”

“Vette, please!” Gimrizh implores her. She can feel her cheeks burn with embarrassment and she hopes that her flush doesn’t show through her tattoos. Even though she knows - or thinks at least - that Vette’s just trying to help in her brash way, it’s really not how she wants to present herself right now.

Quinn is apparently utterly taken aback by Vette. “Is she - ?”

“Ignore her, just - it’s fine.” Gimrizh clears her throat awkwardly. “I’m new at this. I’ve never been in a position of command before, and if I ask or do something that’s out of place, it’s not because I’m trying to insult you.” She gestures towards the holo map, hoping to move on, “Shall we?”

“Of course, my lord.” The map has certain sections outlined and marked, either as Imperial territory or otherwise. Quinn points to an area marked as rebel territory. “Your first target is a series of Balmorran rebel satellite towers. They’re to the east of the Marakan Plains. Although that area is relatively far away from the front lines, our scouts have reported squadrons of battle droids patrolling the area. Fortunately these droids appear to be standard issue from the Balmorran Arms Factory. Since these satellite towers fell out of use after the Treaty of Coruscant, the rebels here consider them low priority.”

That’s not too bad. She did study on her way to Balmorra, and paid close attention to the droid schematics the Empire has managed to acquire. Standard make droids have large weak spots in their exposed joints, as they’re designed to provide a numbers advantage more than anything else in a fight. Balmorran droids aren’t cheap - but these are the shoddiest of the bunch, and with the reduced resources available to the rebels, they likely haven’t been expending a lot of effort into maintaining cheaper droids. Whatever is located in these satellite towers must be more valuable than the rebels know.

“Am I destroying or recovering?” she asks.

“I’m not... entirely certain, my lord,” Quinn replies. “I have been instructed to provide you with detonation charges, so my best guess would be the former. However Lord Baras has requested to speak with you privately once I’ve completed your briefing. Presumably he will be providing you with further information of a more sensitive nature.”

She’s uncertain if she’ll ever understand exactly why Baras works the way he does. And she probably doesn’t want to know. “Of course. Please, put him through then.”

Quinn complies, and the holo flickers, the map fading out to be replaced by a communications interface.

Within moments, Baras’ towering figure stepping into glowing blue sight.

“Apprentice,” he greets. Even the sound of his voice is enough to make Gimrizh’s usual fear and paranoia spike, “I am glad to see that you have arrived on Balmorra safely. We have much work to accomplish here, and a limited time frame to do it in. I have just received news that Nomen Karr has sent an investigator to provide evidence of my spy’s work here.”

Gimrizh bows her head respectfully, even as the idea of an investigator makes her flinch. “Has my mission changed, master?”

“Not yet. The investigator has yet to interfere, but they must be a contained threat. Lieutenant,” Baras orders, “Track down this investigator. I want you monitoring their every movement and ensuring that my apprentice remains one step ahead of whatever Noman Karr and his accomplices attempt.”

Quinn nods. “I will begin as soon as possible, my lord. Is there anything else you require?”

“No. Leave me with my apprentice.”

With a meaningful glance from Gimrizh, Vette sighs and heads out after the officer.

Once the two have left, Baras turns back to Gimrizh, “Quinn owes his career to me, but Rylon’s movements during the war were highly classified and it’s best to keep this between the two of us. And the existence of Karr’s padawan must be kept secret.”

~*~

Vette leans against the office wall and huffs. Sure, she gets why she’s not supposed to overhear top secret Sithyness, but it’s still frustrating. It’s not like Gimrizh won’t tell her the moment they’re out from under Baras’s single eye-hole anyway.

It’s more than just that grating on her nerves, but she’s trying very hard not to think about all the other stuff. Imperial space is making her feel more and more claustrophobic the longer she’s stuck in it. She’d been hoping to be out of this mess by now. Her plan before everything on Korriban had been pretty simple - steal thing, bring thing to Ryloth Cultural Center, rinse and repeat. Now everything’s tangled up like a Csillan finger trap. It’s a damn puzzle, and one that’s getting harder to figure out the longer she spends in the Empire. She’s never liked Imperials on the best of days and now - imp space itches. It itches right along the back of her neck.

She hates feeling like a damn droid that Gimrizh lugs around, even though she knows Gimrizh doesn’t intend that.

At least the stuffy officer got booted out of the room too.

Damn, it must be boring as hells working on a planet like Balmorra. Any and all scenic views likely have bits of them blown up. The planet’s probably too deep in rationing to get any decent food or drink on a regular basis. Stars, if Vette got stuck here, she’d die of boredom in a month. The officer - Quinn or whatever his name is, is busy fussing with some datapad and apparently ignoring her. He wouldn't be the first to think her inconsequential.

"So," she says to the officer, "what's it like working for Baras? Does it make this planet more or less boring?"

His eyes go so wide it's almost funny. But at least he seems to recover from the shock of a slave daring to speak to him pretty quick. "My work for Lord Baras is classified."

"Yeah I thought so," Vette mutters, choosing to interpret his comment differently, if only so as to continue some semblance of conversation. "I don't think anyone, Sith Lord or no, could make this planet not a total pain in the ass."

"I don't think we've been introduced?" He asks, managing to make it more of a question than a demand.

She sticks out her hand, "Name's Vette. I work for her Sithy-ness."

With some noticeable hesitation, he lowers the - probably very boring - datapad and shakes her hand. "Does Lord Gimrizh allow you to address her as such?"

"Eh," Vette shrugs. She's called Gimrizh sillier things to her face, and called Baras ruder things too. It's never seemed to matter before. Gimrizh's discussion about maintaining appearances in public flutters through Vette's thoughts before she tosses it out. A sanctum full of Sith? Sure, danger. One lieutenant? Nah. "Yeah. We're cool."

He doesn't seem convinced. "I hardly think you should refer to your superiors with such blatant disrespect."

“Gimrizh doesn’t give a damn what I call her. And besides, she’s not my superior.” She can see exactly what he’s thinking. If both of them are going to be stuck working for Gimrizh, at least on this planet, then he better get used to the way things work around here. “She’s not exactly human either, in case you haven’t noticed.”

"I had noticed," he says after a pause, looking haughty, "actually. And for that matter, I was referring to her rank, not her species.

“Gimrizh doesn’t outrank me. I’m not some maid who runs around and holds the oh so esteemed Sith’s things or fetch her drinks.” Not like Vette has a rank of her own to compare. She’s outside the system entirely, and she quite prefers it that way.

“She owns you, you should be under orders to treat her with respect. Frankly, I’m surprised that she tolerates your behavior. Or is there simply no filter on that Twi’lek mouth?”

Vette takes a deep breath. She raises one finger and points it at him, because fuck whatever Gimrizh said about being polite and fuck this stupid collar around her neck and fuck this guy in particular. “Oh, we’re going to have some issues.”

The door suddenly slides open and Gimrizh steps out, looking as drained as she normally does after speaking with Baras.

Vette drops her accusing finger and tries to take a deep breath, reminding herself that Gimrizh is stuck dealing with this speciesist crap just as much as she is. “What did his gloominess have to say?”

Gimrizh runs a hand through her hair with a sigh, “Rylon’s work involved sabotaging the Balmorran defenses during the Imperial invasion. Unfortunately he was shortsighted enough not to properly cover his tracks. Those satellite control towers contain the remaining evidence. I see no reason to hide this from either of you - you’d find out eventually. Our first mission is to remove and recover the data. Lieutenant, you were saying something about providing me detonation charges?”

Quinn is already back to fiddling with the datapad. “I can provide you with a T-4 bomb that you can rig into the computer and remotely detonate. And in the time it will take you to arrive, I’ll have sliced into the tower’s schematics to keep ahead of any potential threats, although I presume you will want to handle the information extraction personally. I will do what I can to ensure your safety to the best of my abilities.”

“You’ll be tracking the Republic investigator, yes?” Gimrizh asks, “Can you do all that and still make sure they don’t slip past us?”

“Of course, my lord.” He tells her, a faint, barely noticeable echo of pride in his voice that makes Vette glower.

Vette rolls her eyes. “Great. A war zone. Just where I wanted to spend my evening. Can’t we take a bit of time to wander around the city, take in the sights? See if there’s a decent bar in Sobrik where we can celebrate being back on solid?”

“If you want to be the one to explain why we let a Republic investigator retrieve the data to Darth Baras,” Gimrizh tells her.

Wow she drives a hard bargain. “You know on second thought I’m suddenly filled with passion at the thought of a trek through the war torn Balmorran plains.”

A tiny smile tugs at the corners of Gimrizh’s lips. “As I thought. Lieutenant, there’s no time to waste. Once you set me up with that bomb, we’ll attack the tower.”

~*~

Malavai Quinn has worked for Lord Baras for many years now, long years of being stuck on Balmorra and slowly completing menial tasks that barely do anything to aid the Empire’s constant struggle for the planet. Most of his work for Baras has revolved around merely keeping an eye out and reporting the occasional tidbit of information. Nothing that would be considered controversial, just every so often, doing something for the betterment of the Empire.

It's a relief to know that, even stuck on a rock like Balmorra and kept away from any major operations, there is still something he can do to serve meaningfully.

Although he’s spent quite a while dealing with Sith, he’s rarely had the chance to actually work with one in the field. True, he’s not exactly in the field, he’s sitting at a terminal back in Sobrik tracking both the Republic investigator and Baras’s new apprentice.

A holo map blinks the swiftly moving position of the Zabrak - the apprentice Gimrizh, that is. It's rude to refer to her so clinically, even in his own head. She and the Twi’lek are closing in on the satellite control tower. Malavai pulls up the camera readings from the tower, letting the split-screen footage dominate a large portion of the terminal. Going by the apprentice’s current path, she should be breaching the facility from the west entrance.

A few seconds later, and the cams flicker as the west door’s lock melts under the glow of a red lightsaber blade.

The apprentice strides into the building, followed closely by the Twi'lek.

An alarm starts to blink, silent on his screens but probably quite loud at the tower. Two screens over, a squad of defense droids activate.

The Twi’lek yells something, and then aims both her blasters at the alarm and shoots it out. The red light goes dim with a shower of sparks. A few feet away from their position, another alarm starts caterwauling instead. The Twi’lek groans dramatically and gestures to the alarm with a look of ‘can you believe this?’. Gimrizh merely rolls her eyes and keeps moving down the corridor, a hint of nervousness in her footsteps - likely a result of being found so soon.

That’s when the droids reach their position.

The droids are wielding heavy blasters that are patched into their individual power cores - Malavai has tried to slice their network but to get the droids offline, but he’d have to shut down the entire grid. And then he’d be unable to track the apprentice’s movements or know when to remote detonate the T-4 explosives.

Blaster bolts light up the cameras as the droids begin to fire.

Right away the Twi’lek drops to the ground and crouches behind a metal crate, firing her blasters from behind safe cover. Her first shot pegs a droid in it’s eyepiece and the second two blow out it’s knee joints.

Grudgingly, he has to admit she’s a decent shot - which is rather surprising to see in such an undisciplined sort of person. Malavai prides himself in his aim, but it took practice, long hard hours at a shooting range. The Twi'lek doesn't seem to have the temperament to stomach that sort of thing.

The apprentice, to his intrigue, barely seems to notice the blaster fire. Her lightsaber brushes the bolts off easily in a blur of red, as if she’s simply flicking them out of the way instead of dodging injury. Despite the heavy fire, she keeps advancing with an admirable determination.

With a whirling slash of her lightsaber, Gimrizh cuts the two nearest droids in half. A flick of her wrist sends another droid careening into the wall where the Twi’lek blasts it to destruction.

She twirls around with such elegance that it almost takes his breath away - she chops a droid’s head off, then snaps her leg out to kick one towards its fellow. While both droids are tumbling, she finishes them off with an overhand strike that reduces them to sparking piles of rubble.

One final burst of bolts from the Twi’lek takes down the last droid.

Gimrizh deactivates her saber but keeps it up and at the ready, calling something out to the Twi’lek.

The two advance deeper into the complex, and Malavai pulls up a second set of camera feeds to keep track of their movements.

Baras’s new apprentice is an impressive fighter, he notes, trying to detach himself again from the raw ability she displays.

A second squad of defense droids attacks them and the fighting begins anew. Her movements aren’t the wild unpredictability of someone new to combat, nothing like green soldiers sent out with barely a clue which end of a blaster to hold, but in contrast she’s more reckless than an experienced veteran. Compared to the Twi’lek, who has the sense to hide and duck and utilizes cover when possible, Gimrizh just weaves around blaster fire without apparent care for the damage even a single bolt could do.

He isn’t certain if she’s overconfident, or just that good.

Of course she is a talented duelist, he decides, watching as she puts her glowing blade through a droid’s eyepiece before immediately moving into a spinning move that cuts the next opponent into three pieces.

But there’s an odd asymmetry to her movements, as though she’s perpetually off balance. He might not know how to fight with a lightsaber, but he's studied Sith before, and his eyes can pick out the offbeat notes just as easily as he can spot broken lines of code.

She favors one handed strikes, and keeps hesitating to use her left hand as anything more than a balancing aid. He’s seen similar patterns before, often something born from a combatant used to being thrown around by large opponents. While he’s not one to argue in favor of removing a defense mechanism, it’s not only strange to see in a Sith but also an unnecessary handicap on her.

According to what he’s read, lightsabers aren’t weightless; the continuous energy loop of the blade is extraordinarily resistant to changes in motion. Surely for someone as lithe and short as her, double-handed strikes to add strength or increased inertia to counteract the saber’s initial repelling force would be of greater use, if not utterly essential. Instead, she’s sacrificing two handed strikes in favor of keeping her left hand constantly free and, frankly, useless.

She relies on pure acrobatics, twirling and spinning to attack and dodge. While it should marginally increase the force behind her blade strikes, Malavai disapproves simply because of how much energy her movements waste. And while there seems to be a lot of energy behind her movements, she seems to switch between either furiously attacking or pulling back unnecessarily.

She isn’t unskilled, but it’s clear she fights with little forethought - it’s imperfect, unrefined. And of course he can’t make any judgements on her ability beyond observing her technique and combat effectiveness. He’s no Sith, and as such his knowledge of the force and its powers is limited to the few available files that are not restricted to the Sith Order. It almost frustrates him, because he can see the efficiency of her work right before his eyes.

On the screen, Gimrizh and the Twi’lek dispatch the last of the droids in their sector of the tower, leaving no further obstacles between them and the mainframe computer. He flicks through different cam feeds as they rush through the complex to the control room.

The Twi’lek blows the lock on the door and then stands guard by the entrance.

Gimrizh retrieves the small bomb and it’s assorted wires from her pack and starts to fix it to the computer. She says something that makes the Twi’lek laugh as she pries open the central panel and wires the bomb into the maze of wires and datachips.

Just then, Malavai’s personal holo starts to flash - never a good sign.

As soon as he answers the call, Baras steps into view, “Lieutenant,” The flickering blue figure of the Sith says, “An update?"

"I'm compiling a report on your apprentice's abilities, as you requested." Malavai thinks of the stack of lightsaber form datafiles he received a week ago, sitting on his terminal and well annotated. "I'm uncertain how valuable my analysis can be, given the limited time I had to research Sith combat - not that I am blaming you for the short notice, my lord."

"And?"

"As I said, I hardly think it's my place to comment, but I've recorded the footage for you all the same and I shall send that off with my report as soon as it's completed."

“Never forward, as usual. Rylon’s son has been located. I’m sending you the location now - forward it to my apprentice.”

“Of course, my lord,” Malavai replies immediately, already patching in the apprentice’s holo frequency.

“And send me any updates you have on the Republic investigator.”

“Right away.”

Malavai calls Gimrizh’s holo on the second line and, while the call connects, copies his current tracking program with the investigator's position to a spare datachip. He plugs the chip into his holo and sends it off to Baras.

On screen, the apprentice pulls out her holo communicator and within a second, her figure flickers into existence in the holo.

“Lieutenant,” she says pleasantly, “The bomb has been rigged into the mainframe.”

He nods, “I’ve been keeping tabs on your progress - as soon as you are a safe distance away I can detonate the bomb.”

“Excellent,” she replies. On the terminal’s screen, Malavai can see the Twi’lek giving his holo-self a glare. Even though she cannot see he can’t help but shoot her a glare in return. How childish of her.

“Lord Baras has revealed your next target - Commander Rylon’s son. I have his location and can send it to you at your earliest convenience.”

“Of course. I can head there now.”

Malavai copies the coordinates Lord Baras has sent and forwards it to Gimrizh’s holo.

Instead he follows his previous orders and copies over all the footage of Baras’ apprentice from the satellite control tower to the file that he has on her. He opens up a text file and starts inputting his observations of her abilities. Although he isn’t sure why Baras wants to keep such close tabs on Gimrizh, Malavai isn’t about to question his orders. And if that means writing up an analysis of her skills and failings, then fine.

He’s loyal to Baras after all, not her.

~*~

“Come on, really?” Vette groans for what must be the hundredth time as they approach the compound where Rylon’s son is being held captive.

They’ve been traveling for almost forty hours straight and Vette is both not happy at having to work through the night and is very good at making her opinion known, “It’s just… I can’t run on fumes and caff forever, you know? You’re supposed to be a Sith right, don’t Sith get breaks? I feel as though we should get breaks. Can’t we come back for this guy in the morning?”

“Technically, it is morning.” Gimrizh whispers, hoping Vette will get the message and keep her voice down - they’re infiltrating a Republic aligned compound after all, and it wouldn’t do to loudly broadcast their position to every damn guard that they slip past. Although they are slipping past a number of lightly dozing or otherwise remarkably unobservant guards. She should file a complaint. Clearly the training here is subpar, if two such obvious infiltrators can sneak in.

Republic Outpost Victory, although technically held by the Balmorran Resistance, is the pride of the Republic here. It’s a massive outpost, buried into the cliffside and built around a deep pit that allows them large swaths of underground territory. It’s manned by both resistance members and pubs, and theoretically should be nearly impossible to breach.

In reality, it’s the middle of the night.

Even for a planet that has a forty-seven hour rotation period, the middle of the night is still dark, miserable, and occupied only by those who really wish they were asleep. They’ve only had to kill two patrolling officers to get where they are now - strolling through the halls towards the cells. The few guards who pass them are easy enough to hide from and neither of the two bodies that are currently stuffed in a supply closet have been discovered yet. There are larger groups of soldiers on the base, but most are elsewhere. Fortunately, Lieutenant Quinn informed them that Durmat is being held in low security cells and not the heavily guarded prison complex. Unfortunately, the lieutenant apparently can’t slice into the system here without raising enough alarms to get them discovered in a heartbeat. Which means Gimrizh and Vette are relatively on their own for now.

Vette sighs in resignation as she starts cracking the lock on the cell door that should hopefully lead to Durmat’s cell.

With a near silent ‘pop’ the door slides open and the two walk into the main room. The cell blocks to their right are dark and silent, but the block to the left is lit and there’s the faint sound of someone talking.

How easy. Gimrizh signals to Vette and her compatriot draws her blasters. Naga Sadow’s lightsaber sits heavy in her palm as she creeps closer towards the noise. She has her back to the wall, just barely peeking the lit up cell block, her breathing slow, and steady, and silent. The noise isn’t someone talking, she realizes. It’s too staticy, there’s too many people, and it’s too quiet. It’s a holo vid.

Vette taps Gimrizh on the shoulder. “Let me,” she whispers.

That’s maybe not the best idea - and Vette’s stepping into the light, her weapons holstered, and a grinning smile on her face.

“Hey, is that Pod-chaser season two?” Vette asks, as light hearted as if she’s chatting with a friend at a bar. “Before Sky Xizil got lekku surgery and left the show?”

There’s a clatter and the noise of the holo vid cuts out. “Yeah. Damn shame about that too, his podracer had the coolest design.”

“Those electric green racing stripes, yeah? Gorgeous.”

“What’s your clearance code? I can’t see your alert - this system’s bugged to hells and back, every other service alert gets eaten.” A shuffling sound. The hum of a computer terminal as it starts to heat up, fans whirring and the faint static of the holo fields. “Republic, main command, or general service?”

Why does this man - this complete stranger - Why isn’t he shooting Vette? Why hasn’t he sounded an alarm or called for back-up, why is he treating her like she must work on this base, like she’s - Ah. Vette’s a Twi’lek. A civilian looking Twi’lek who’s acting as though she has every right to be there and of course the guard is rolling with it because Twi’leks in general are not Sith.

“I’m here with the Republic investigation. Nomen Karr sent me - picking up Durmat, right?”

“Right. Sorry, I can’t find you anywhere in the system. Last I heard you lot weren’t supposed to arrive for at least another ten hours. I wasn’t informed of a change in plans. Let me see your ID, I should double check with the captain to make sure there aren’t any problems - sorry for the delay.”

That’s the end of that.

“Oh - “ Vette’s voice is slightly higher than usual. “Sure yeah. That’s fine.”

Gimrizh strides into the cell block, ignites her lightsaber with a flash of red and a hiss of energy, and throws the blade straight into the guard’s head. He has just enough time to open his mouth for a soundless scream and then the lightsaber has burned a hole through his forehead.

A tug on the force sends the bloodied lightsaber hilt back into her hand. “Well done.”

Vette’s blue skin is paler and greener than usual. “Oh fuck - did you have to - “ She turns away from the guard’s body. “That’s disgusting.”

“You’ve seen me kill droids. I do the same to people.” It’s better for Vette to become accustomed to this quickly. Gimrizh knows from experience that a short, sharp shock is infinitely preferable to dragging it out. “Try to avoid breathing in too much of the smell. The nausea will pass soon enough.”

“I mean I get why - but you could have warned me! I’d prefer not to be in the, you know, the splash zone.”

“If I warned you, it would have warned him as well.”

Only one cell in the room is occupied and Gimrizh returns to the matter at hand.

A scrawny speck of a young man sits in the corner of the cell, curled into a ball with his head tucked between his legs like a frightened animal. He doesn’t even look up as Gimrizh approaches. The rebels here must have already had a few goes at him before waiting for the Republic to take over the investigation. Rebel investigators might not have force lightning and mind invasion to work with, but interrogation droids are their own particular brand of pain. It’s no wonder the man’s retreated into himself like this.

She lowers the energy field of his cell and kneels down next to the man. “Durmat?”

He jerks his head up, wide terrified eyes under a mop of unkempt hair, his hands suddenly in front of his face as he tried to scramble away from her. “I don’t - I don’t know anything, please - I don’t know anything about my dad - “

“Ssh. I’m not here to ask you any questions.” She gestures to the lightsaber hanging from her belt without reaching for it. “I’m a Sith. I know your father worked for the Empire, we’re here to help you.”

“Sith?” He gapes at her. “I don’t - no, this is - my dad didn’t - I don’t know anything about the Empire, I swear.”

It’s a shame that the Jedi will still be able to get what they need from him. Once the Republic investigator hands Durmat over to Noman Karr, he won’t be able to resist. No one without the protection of the force could survive Jedi interrogation techniques, and even with the force - she wouldn’t want to test it herself, that’s for certain. “It’s alright, Durmat,” she says. “Your father would be proud of you.”

“Is my dad - is he here?” Durmat’s eyes dart wildly around the room, as though he’s looking for Rylon to appear out of thin air. “If you’re here to help - I want to see my dad.”

“You’ll see him soon. I promise.” She gets to her feet and holds out a hand to Durmat. “Let me help you.”

There’s nothing she can do for him - She wishes she could, she knows the toll that torture can take on a person. She doesn’t want to kill him, he’s done nothing to her, he’s unarmed, this isn’t like killing an enemy combatant.

But Baras had specifically ordered Durmat’s death. No matter how much she’d prefer to take the young man back to Sobrik and get him proper treatment, Baras was perfectly clear, and if she doesn’t obey, Baras will kill her. Her memory provides her with a flash of Vemrin’s head on the floor and she winces at the thought of it being her head, her failure, of Baras holding his lightsaber to her throat for disobeying orders.

The cuffs around his wrists make it difficult, but he reaches hesitantly towards her. His fingers are frozen stiff in her hand. She pulls him to his feet, drawing his shaking body close to hers, slipping the lightsaber from her belt. It’s almost an embrace. She tugs him closer so that his head is leaning over her shoulder and then presses the hilt of her lightsaber against the back of his head.

A flash of red light, and she lets his dead body fall.

Vette’s staring at her. “You promised him he’d see his dad. You said - you said we were going to help him.”

The man’s glassed over eyes stare up at Gimrizh. He didn’t know what was happening when she - when she killed him. She’s certain of that. “He died with that hope in mind, at least. That was the only thing I could do for him.” She clears her throat. “Can you please slice the terminals here and remove any record of Durmat’s interrogations from the system?”

“Sure.” Vette’s movements are stiff and jerky as she moves to the terminals.

Gimrizh bends down to gently close Durmat’s eyes. It really is all she can do for the man. He wasn’t dealt a very good hand in life, but at least he was an Imperial, if only by technicality, and she gave him the most painless death she could manage.

The whirr of the terminals is interrupted as Vette carefully speaks up. “You interrogated three prisoners on Korriban and didn’t kill any of them. Why was killing this guy different?”

Gimrizh hesitates. “If we hadn’t been under orders to kill him, I would have tried to help. If I’d brought him back to Baras, he would have gone through much worse - and so would I. If Baras had given me different orders… I don’t know, to ‘deal with him’, or ‘ensure he doesn’t talk’ then I could have let him live. I didn’t want to kill him. But I refuse to risk my neck. I can’t disobey Baras.”

“You did that because you’re afraid of Baras?”

“Terrified. We talked about this, Vette.”

“Just… for next time - you told him that ‘we’ were going to help. Don’t include me in something like that if you aren’t even going to talk to me about it beforehand.”

“You’re pissed because I didn’t ask you about killing him?”

“I’m not some imp you can just order around.” Vette blinks at the computer terminal and then swears. “So I have some good news and some bad news. Good news is that I got rid of Durmat’s data files. Bad news is that I think we’re about to have company.”

Gimrizh has just enough time to ignite her lightsaber before there’s a clatter of movement coming towards the cell block. The distinct sound of heavy armor and blaster rifles banging around on a soldier’s frame. These rebels don’t like to waste time. She can appreciate that, although she’s prefer not to be on the receiving end of it.

Within moments, two full squads of rebel soldiers storm into the cell block.

Well. That explains where all the prison guards were.

Vette curses up a storm and moves to cover Gimrizh’s back. All eleven soldiers raise their blasters and take aim, ready to fire at a second’s provocation.

In a flash, Gimrizh ignites her lightsaber and lets it flare to life. Vette drops to one knee and starts firing rapidly while Gimrizh deflects bolts.

Vette’s blasts send two troopers to the ground within moments, and then three drop from bolts that they themselves fired.

There’s nothing quite like this, nothing that compares to the rhythm of her pounding heart or the live hum of her lightsaber. Nothing like the feel of complete control and power. Nothing that can stop her, not as she whirls around herself and Vette, sending every shot hurtling back towards the soldier who fired it. She feels unshakable in her defense of the tight little circle that the two of them make up.

Combat is one of the few way she truly can tap into the force. Sure, she meditates and practices as she’s supposed to and the force is in everything. But the pure raw power that it gives her when she’s like this, saber in hand and everything on the line. That power is beyond all compare, both the greatest gift and the hardest struggle.

Three troops are left, and if she’s very fast and clever, she can take out two of them in one go. She eyes a huge workdesk to her right - two soldiers are to her left and Vette is between her and the final guard. Okay. She can do this.

She reaches out her free hand and pulls.

“Vette! Down!”

Vette flattens herself to the ground as the desk careens over her head and smashes full force into the two soldiers, sending them and the desk flying into the wall. When the dust settles, the desk’s a destroyed hunk of rubble and both troopers are down for the count, lying slumped against the wall.

The single remaining soldier is shot down by Vette before she even fully stands up.

“Where’s the nearest exit?” Gimrizh asks, kicking the rubbish to the side and flipping her lightsaber around to switch it off. “I have a feeling we’re in need of a hasty retreat.”

~*~

Balmorra’s single sun is just creeping over the horizon when Gimrizh and Vette drag themselves back into Sobrik on a beat-up speeder.

Vette promptly heads back to the ship to get some sleep before whatever assignment Baras springs on them next. And so, because someone needs to report the results of both missions, Gimrizh makes her way to Quinn’s office alone, but wishing that she too could collapse somewhere and not be conscious for a bit.

No junior NCOs run her down as she enters his office this time, which is a relief as she feels so exhausted that she might accidentally kill someone who runs into her. Stars, she hates this planet’s rotation.

“Ah, my lord, welcome back.” Quinn greets, standing and saluting at her entrance.

At least she isn’t the only one who looks ragged. The lieutenant has dark circles under his eyes and a strong five o’clock on yesterday’s shadow. Even though he probably had plenty of time to take a nap and didn’t spend the night running around the Balmorran wasteland, he probably got just as much sleep as she did. It mollifies her somewhat. Everyone of them is suffering to meet Baras’ high demands. Except Vette.

She sighs and runs her hand through her hair, trying to flatten the dirty mess it’s likely become, “Good morning Lieutenant,” she says.

“Ah,” he checks a chronometer as if to be sure that it is in fact morning, “Yes, good morning. I admit, I am both pleased and surprised that you were so successful. The odds were astronomically against you. Your performance in the field is quite excellent.”

Well. Good to know that someone appreciates her work. Even though she knows that Baras will never truly acknowledge her hard work beyond the occasional comment and has come to terms with this, it’s nice to be complemented. “You know just what to say,” she says with a sigh, “It’s been a hell of a couple days. Or day? How do you keep up with the time on this planet?”

“With caf,” he quips.

Ah yes. “And caffeine supplements?” she remembers, hopefully. “With luck, that’s next on my list after I get my next orders from Lord Baras. Can I use your holo to contact him?”

“Certainly,” Quinn agrees, “however, it is currently six-thirty in the morning in Kaas City. Lord Baras’s offices will not be open for another half hour.”

“Shit.” The last thing she wants is to piss Baras off over something as simple as waking him up at a ridiculous hour. To make it even worse, she knows she can’t go to sleep because if she does, and if she’s not awake when Baras wants to contact her, she’ll be in hot water for ignoring his call. She doesn’t know if she can stay awake for even a few more minutes. She’s dead on her feet as it is, she’s pretty sure there’s blood caked to the bottom of her boots, and the hour she’d spent passed out in the speeder back to Sobrik was not enough.

Of course Baras has them running around at all hours, but force forbid he not get his beauty rest.

After a moment she realizes she’s just staring blankly at the lieutenant. “Would you care to proceed to the next item on that list of yours?” he suggests, posing the question slowly and cautiously, as though she might bite. “The kitchen here is hardly large, but it can fit two people and a caf machine well enough.”

“That is the best thing I’ve heard in the past…. seventy-four hours.”

She follows him to a small kitchen, almost the size of her ship’s galley, if not smaller. It’s just a small table with two chairs and counter that’s been shoved into the corner. Standing suddenly feels like the worst thing possible and she practically melts into the nearest seat, her bones turning to rubber.

Lieutenant Quinn goes through the motions of making caf as though he’s using the work to avoid the silence between the two of them.

It’s surprisingly how polite he is around her. She’s not used to this, to people treating her with respect, or even with deference. During the disaster on Black Talon , she’d been giving orders, sure, but it’d hadn’t been her that the crew was obeying, it had been the Grand Moff. Perhaps Quinn is simply treating her as he would Darth Baras, even though there’s no need for that, and she can’t see why he would. He must have far more years of experience than she does. Surely that gives him authority over her, if nothing else.

Even stranger is that he seems to be… not afraid of her, not exactly, but he deals with her with trepidation, as though he’s worried one wrong move will result in her screaming for his head. He slips up sometimes though, talks to her like she’s a person and not a caricature of a Sith, and it’s those moments that make her curious. She keeps trying to look though the mask of professionalism that he wears like a second skin.

When she’d spoke to him over holo on Dromund Kaas, she’d seen that brief flicker of a smile flash across his lips and she finds herself hoping to catch it again.

There’s a hiss of boiled water and he pours two cups of the sort of cheap, instant caf that’s part of standard rations. He places one mug in front of her along with a small jar of caffeine supplements before stiffly sitting down across from her.

“I recommend taking one of those every six hours,” he advises.

She laughs. “You haven’t seen Institute students during aptitude exam season. I’ve drunk caf brewed with illicit Thranta-ade instead of water. I know what I’m doing here.” She dumps three caffeine tablets into her hand, crushes them into powder, and then pours the dust into her caf. It’s hot enough that she has to blow on it to cool it down before sticking her finger into the drink and stirring it into a thicker, sludgier version of itself.

He opens his mouth, tightly shuts it again, and then finally asks, “Illicit?”

She scratches the back of her head, tugging on her hair until the back probably resembles a bird’s nest. “Most commercially available foods, like Thranta-ade, aren’t really distributed in Institutes. A few of the others in my year - a couple human girls - befriended some Overseers and used them to bring snacks and drinks onto the campus. They made a killing in trading those for favors. It might have been illicit, but their business acumen was very impressive.”

“If you say so, my lord,” he replies. “I certainly saw my share of caffeine addictions when I was in the officer’s academy.”

“Oh? What was that like?”

He arches an eyebrow and there it is - that thin smirk she’s been looking for. “The academy or the caffeine addictions?”

“The academy. I’m a living cautionary tale against caf addiction.”

“I suppose it was… standard, my lord. The academy I attended was on Dromund Kaas, one of the top three academies on the planet. It was located in southern Jongaib - “

“That’s… “ Gimrizh bites her lower lip. “I meant what was it like for you?”

“Ah - I suppose I enjoyed my time there. That said, it felt constraining at times, as the war was raging and yet I was stuck on Dromund Kaas, unable to assist the Empire in any meaningful manner.”

“I know that feeling. I was itching to become Sith throughout my education as well. Now that I’m in the field - well, it’s an honor now that I am Sith.” She takes a long sip of caf to hide the grimace she can’t fully repres as she says, “It’s an honor to serve Lord Baras here.”

“May I ask how your mission went?” Quinn asks. His long fingers are wrapped around the mug of faintly steaming caf as though it’s his only tie to consciousness, a sentiment she can’t help but agree with.

“As to be expected.” With all that entails. “We found Durmat easily enough, and we were lucky in that the only significant resistance we faced was after I eliminated h - the target.” Guilt coils in her, sitting low and heavy on her stomach and mixing unpleasantly with the hot caf. She had to kill Durmat. She didn’t have a choice. She just has to accept that and distance herself from him if need be. “He had been tortured,” she admits, “I tried to kill him as painlessly as possible, but we could have - if Lord Baras hadn’t -” She coughs. “I apologize. I shouldn’t be unloading all this onto you. Please, ignore me.”

The lieutenant takes a slow, deliberated sip of caf. “For what my opinion is worth, I think that’s quite admirable of you,” he says, and she’s surprised to hear genuine approval in his voice. “I may not have worked with many Sith before, but the few I know would have simply killed the target. Taking the time to ensure a painless death is…” He pauses, turning his words over his mind. “That was kind of you to do so, my lord.”

But - Vette had been so opposed - Gimrizh has to remind herself that Vette is not an Imperial, she doesn’t serve the Empire. And she certainly doesn’t serve Baras. She can disobey Baras as much as she likes and it’s doubtful Baras would care enough about her existence to do anything about it. Gimrizh, on the other hand, is well, aware that her life is on the line here. She can work within Baras’s orders, but regardless of whatever Vette thinks, she can’t go directly against them.

She already failed twice on Korriban before she’d learned better.

“I don’t think death is ever a kindness,” she says.

“As you say, my lord. Still, it is an honor to die protecting the Empire’s secrets.”

“Of course.” It isn’t as though she’s allowed to think otherwise. She goes to sip her mug of caf and realizes it’s empty. “What time is it?”

Quinn checks his crono and then hastily informs her. “It’s just past seven in Kaas City - Lord Baras will be available.”

“Shit.”

“You can use the holo in my barracks, it’s a secure channel.”

“I’ll speak to him right away.” She gets to her feet, placing her empty mug into the sink. “Thank you for the caf.”

Quinn has stood up as well, to give her a short bow as she rushes out of the kitchen. “You are welcome, my lord.”

Gimrizh makes her way through the office complex to the barracks room, pointlessly hoping that Baras will have either a simple task for her or tell her that she’s not needed for another day and a half. It’s unlikely to the point of being almost impossible, but she can still daydream about finally catching up on her sleep. It a privilege of the higher ups, she thinks, that Baras can just holo in every so often to make sure his subordinates do his bidding while not actually going into the field himself. And then she promptly stops thinking that because she’s going to be speaking with him in a second and she cannot let any of those feelings show through. She, unlike Baras, doesn’t wear a mask to hide her emotions.

She schools her face into a calm facade as she enters. The lieutenant’s room is stark and bare, looking more like a temporary hotel room instead of a place where he’s probably been living for a few years. Everything is clean, organized, with no visible personal belongings. Everything she can see is standard military equipment. No holo albums or non-regulation datapads, and not a single thing out of place. It’s oddly impersonal. She wonders what sort of person the lieutenant is, if this is where he lives.

The only glimpse of something personal is a small holo at his desk, almost hidden behind the larger computer terminal. It shows a low resolution image of a young man in a pilot’s jumpsuit, standing triumphantly on top of a wrecked ISF, flashing the camera a grin.

She tries to ignore it out of respect for Quinn’s privacy and punches Baras’ frequency into the holo.

Almost right away the call connects, and the glowing blue light illuminates Baras’ image.

“Ah, my young apprentice,” He says in greeting, his voice only slightly distorted by the signal, “I am pleased by your work with the satellite control tower and dealing with Rylon’s son.”

It’s a rarity to hear some praise coming from him. “Thank you, master,” she says, “What is my next move?”

His flickering figure begins to pace back and forth, “We have removed all trace of his involvement in the Empire, and he has nowhere to run to. It is time to eliminate the man himself. I’m sending you after Rylon.”

“As you wish,” she agrees, tonelessly.

“Remember, we cannot link Rylon to the Empire in any way and there must be no suspicion that his death was assassination. Make the attack look random, as though an act of war. Kill everyone there to ensure that there are no witnesses.”

“And if the Republic investigator shows up?”

“Deal with them.”

She bows her head in submission, knowing that there is nothing she can do to change Baras’ mind about such a harsh sentence. Knowing that some part of her is even looking forward to the coming fight. It’s what she’s been trained for, it’s what’s been teased out of her and carefully worked into her hearts for years. She can’t deny it and pretend that the bloodthirsty part of her doesn’t exist. All she can do, really, is ignore it whenever possible. And besides, it marks her as Sith. How can she purge it from herself?

“As you wish, master.”

Baras stops his pacing and directs his one visible eye to stare at her, “I want him dead as soon as possible. If we wait too long, he shall slip through our grasp. Already he may have heard news of his son’s demise. Move quickly, my apprentice.”

The screen cuts out and Baras’ looming appearance vanishes.

Feeling a little dazed, she makes her way back to Lieutenant Quinn’s office.

She interrupts him before he can ask her what Baras said, or more likely ask her what he has to do, as he seems to have made the realization that his self preservation relies on not hearing any potentially secretive conversations. “I’m going after Rylon,” she says, “Where is he?”

“Of course.” He turns to the terminal and pulls up what looks like two or three separate tracking programs, blinking holo maps with various moving dots that mark position and coordinates. “Commander Rylon is currently located in the Balmorran Arms Factory. However I must warn you, the Republic investigator is close by as well.”

Damn it, can’t anything be easy? “Should that be a significant problem?”

He shakes his head, “No. The factory is the center of the war on Balmorra - half its sectors are in lockdown and the rest is consumed by the fighting. Frankly, it'll be challenging enough for you to get in, let alone the investigator. Even if the investigator knew the Commander’s exact location, which is highly unlikely, it would be nearly impossible for them to reach you in time.”

“Small blessings, I suppose,” Gimrizh comments, “Can you send me the coordinates along with a map of the area?”

“I believe I can do one better,” He tells her, looking somewhat proud. He plugs a small data reader into the terminal and downloads a file onto it. In less than a couple seconds, the reader flashes blue and Quinn hands the reader to her.

She switches it on and a small holo map appears with a dot that seems to be located in the center of a large building complex. It’s an exact copy of one of the visible tracking programs the lieutenant is running. “How does the program work?”

“It compares satellite footage taken around the Arms Factory, holo feeds that I’ve managed to slice into, and reports from any of our soldiers on site who are wearing body holo-cams.”

“I’m impressed,” she says honestly, “Thank you.”

“It’s nothing special, I assure you. Now, as you can see from the data logs,” Here he points to a section of the map, “Commander Rylon has remained within a fifty meter radius for the past twenty-four hours. That section of the factory is under Imperial siege, which is fortunate in two ways - Firstly, it should be far easier for you to access that area of the factory. Secondly, it means he should still be in that location by the time you arrive.”

The map is detailed and specific surrounding the factory, but it doesn’t show Sobrik. “How far away is the factory?”

“It should take five hours by speeder, barring any outstanding circumstances.” He informs her, “There are Imperial speeders that can be made available to you, upon your request.”

Oh dear. And she had been so looking forward to a nap. If it takes five hours to get there and Baras wants Rylon dead as soon as possible, she can allow herself maybe one hour to freshen up and then wake Vette.

“Wonderful,” she mutters sarcastically. She turns the data reader off and slips it into a pocket with a heavy sigh, “I suppose I can cancel any plans of sleeping soon. Vette will be furious with me as well, I’m sure.”

Quinn frowns in confusion, “The Twi’lek, yes?”

She nods, “Vette is the lucky one - as soon as we returned to Sobrik she made a hasty retreat to her bed.”

The slight confusion, which was barely noticeable to begin with, fades from his face and the mask of professionalism returns. “Will you be able to fight at an acceptable capacity?”

Good to know that she looks a complete mess. He hasn’t said as such, of course, but it is written all over his face. She’s exhausted and she looks it. She brushes it off though, “Ignore me, I just complain. The caf helped immensely. If necessary, I can go up to four days without sleeping and still retain coherency and fighting capabilities. The military has similar training, right?”

“Quite correct, my lord,” he confirms. “Although I was unaware the Sith Order did the same.”

True, no one who’s outside the Order really knows what it does or how it works. “What can I say, we’re a secretive bunch,” she comments, “Ah well. Let’s hope that Rylon turns out to be an easy opponent.”

“Unfortunately, I doubt that will be the case.” And there Quinn goes, crushing her bubble of false hope. “Commander Rylon is an experienced soldier, legendary for his skill in battle. He’ll have his elite squad with him as well and they are not easily defeated.”

A tiny grin slides onto her face. “Sounds like you admire the man, Lieutenant?”

“He has a glowing military history,” Quinn says stiffly. “I have respect for his abilities - not to would be both foolish, and underestimating a powerful enemy.”

“Don’t worry, I’m hardly going to file a complaint.”

“I hope I don’t give you reason to,” he tells her. “Is there anything else I can do for you before you leave?”

“Oh, no, that’s alright.”

“Then I wish you the best of luck on your assignment. I’ll be monitoring the investigator and your progress as you proceed, don’t hesitate to contact me if you need anything.”

She smiles faintly, “Thank you, I’m confident that I can succeed. I’ll depart in an hour - if you can get some rest during that time, I encourage you to do so. It’s going to be a long day, Lieutenant.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Quinn bows his head as she turns to leave. “For the Empire.”

“For the Empire,” she echoes.

~*~

In the hour that Gimrizh gives herself she manages to take a brief sonic shower and change her clothes. She shoves a tasteless ration bar into her mouth and that's all she has time for. She waits till the last possible moment to wake Vette, who is grumpy and miserable at having managed only two hours of rest.

Then they head out to kill a legend.

The speeder only takes them to an Imperial outpost near the edge of the Sundari flatlands and they have to make their way for the final hour towards the factory on foot.

Gimrizh’s first glimpse of the droid factory takes her breath away. Balmorra is a dull rocky wasteland of a planet, but clearly their droid and weapons production is worth every day spent stuck fighting this war. This planet is famous for their droid armies, and she can see why.

The Balmorran Arms Factory is the central heart and hub of this planet. And it’s massive beyond belief.

Sure, she's seen the Troidia facility and the huge metalworking complex near Gorinth but none of those can ever hope to compare to this factory. It’s a giant facility, built into the mountains and dug deep into the ground. Smokestacks billow smog across the sky, where it mixes and becomes indistinguishable from the cannon fire and dust from bombings. Huge trenches split the earth beneath the factory to make way for giant pipes that run across the dirt and connect the sections of factory to each other like veins of a living organism.

“I heard Balmorra can make a million assassin droids in a single day,” Vette says softly, in awe of the sheer size of the thing.

Gimrizh can believe that. She nods, speechless, just staring.

The entire place, from the flatlands they’re standing in to the man-made valley and mountains in front of them, is full of ruins - droids and ships and outposts that were never secured.

The Balmorran resistance, secretly aided by the Republic, might be a small rag-tag group of fighters, but they are by no means weak. Early on in the conflict, they’d secured the factory and now their armies of droids are fighting alongside the rebels. Squads of Imperial troops are running around, tirelessly blasting droids to bits - droids that will be replaced within a few days. She can even see the burning red lightsabers of a few fellow Sith fighting of the front lines. Huge wrecks of ships litter the ground, shot down Republic and Imperial ships alike, now used as shelter and places to hold ground.

Farther away, closer to the harsh craggy cliffs where the main center of the factory is located, she can pick out the large forms of crawling spider-droids, scuttling around on their bellies like metal acklays. Those are worse than the droves of standard sized, blaster wielding, assassin droids. Each spider unit is eight meters tall and equipped with precision bolt canons and anti-aircraft blasters. And their targeting software is said to be so accurate that it can spot and kill a womp rat from a kilometer away.

Getting in is going to be hell.

Gimrizh retrieves the data reader that the Lieutenant gave her and checks the map. Rylon hasn’t moved, which is always a bonus, but he’s past the first cliff, in an administrative complex at the edge of the second valley. She turns the map around, trying to figure out the best way in. "I... don't know what to do here. Vette, you're good at breaking into places, right?"

The holo gets passed to a far more interested Vette.

“Well, the Empire's apparently got a shit load of sewer pipes opened up that snake through this giant open area. Some get pretty close to the factory gates, actually, and this one goes right up to - convenient. There’s a series of tunnels beyond that go straight through that mountain,” Vette tells Gimrizh, pointing at the sharp mountains ahead of them, “Rylon is through there, a hidden valley behind it, and then inside a section of the factory. One tunnel comes out near his location, it’s probably our best bet. Well, it's what I'd take, at any rate.”

“Great,” Gimrizh grumbles, “Sewers. I’m sure this’ll go well.”

Vette tosses the holo back. "Loads of fun."

Fun is probably the least likely thing to occur, and Gimrizh isn’t looking forward to the coming fight one bit. “I suppose we should think of it this way. When we’re done here, Rylon will be dead and we can get some actual sleep.”

Vette shrugs. “I admit, sleep is an excellent motivator.”

“Then let’s go.”

With a quiet click, Gimrizh tugs her lightsaber from her belt and holds it unlit and at the ready. They’ll have to try and approach the mountain with a good deal of stealth if they want a chance to get through without a thousand droids converging on their position.

The Imperial outpost they've landed in connects relatively easily to the pipes, a squad of soldiers is standing guard outside the one that Gimrizh intends to traverse, and they let the two of them pass easily enough once she flashes her Sith ID badge. They clamber down into the pipes, instantly becoming engulfed in the dull gloom as the sky light vanishes behind them.

"Yuck," Vette complains, as their boots make unpleasant squelching sounds every time they take a step. "This is disgusting and I hate myself for suggesting it."

"Congratulations, you're too good at your job," Gimrizh mutters back.

They take the longer and safer way around, navigating the pipes under the trenches, the clash of blaster bolts occasionally reverberating through the metal when the pipes slope up towards the surface.

Heavy, clanking sounds echo through the pipes - droids. Republic droids - apparently the Empire are not the only ones who figured out that this might be an excellent infiltration method. Expected, really.

Gimrizh takes a deep breath to calm herself. She can handle droids.

Behind her, Vette slinks towards the curved metal walls, blasters in hand, keeping back at Gimrizh's signal. She ignites her blade with a hiss of red as the droid creaks around the corner, a massive thing that crawls along the ground on six blade-like limbs.

It's energy canons roar to life when it senses them - too late. Gimrizh pushes herself off the ground and leaps.

The burning energy of her blade carves the droid in two like it's made of flimsiplast, and when she lands on in a crouch two sparking halves of droid fall down away from her.

"Sweet," Vette grins.

Gimrizh's eyes water at the stench as the droid's dying sparks ignite whatever's floating in the inch of water that they've been walking through. "Disgusting, is more like it. Come on, if the Republic has got droids in here, it means they've got the entrance to the tunnel complex guarded. I should have known - honestly, it was ridiculously optimistic of me to think that we were the first to think of using the sewers to breach the factory."

They follow the path the droid seemed to have been taking.

A few sentry turrets indicate they're getting close - quickly dealt with as Gimrizh deflects the bolts and lets Vette get in a few pinpoint accurate blaster shots.

"You owe me new shoes," Vette complains as they trek forward, the pipes getting wider and more heavily reinforced. She scrunches her nose up at the bad smell and furrows her brow every time her feet squelch. "Really nice new shoes. Fancy ones. We're talking sparkles on them."

Yes, that's a priority right now. "Because I have the money for that?"

"Good point. What does Baras pay you?"

"Not enough to put up with this literal shit."

Vette bursts into laughter.

Not five minutes later, they approach a wide, durasteel door, security bolted to seven hells and back, with two hulking droids in front of it, weapons powered up and ready to fire.

"Identify," one of them demands, flat robotic voice reverberating through the metal pipe.

Gimrizh considers the potential injuries she would get by actually fighting them. Unlike with the previous sentry, they don't have the element of surprise. Furthermore they'd run the risk of being locked out of the tunnels entirely should things fail to go perfectly. They have no idea what these droids are programmed to do. "Vette, you're a slicer, right?"

She gives a thumbs up. "Got it, boss lady. You're making me use up my favorite tools, you know? As a benevolent queen, I shall demand fair payment."

The droid blaster hums. "Identify."

Ignoring the comment, Gimrizh gathers the force in her hands, the power swelling from every inch of her body, dragged into her fingertips. She concentrates, focuses on the droids, and lets go. It slams into them, pushes them to the ground, overloading their circuits. The force is rippling, tearing through her as she throws everything she has into keeping the damn droids inoperable.

Blood rushes to her head - she's going to faint - she can't hold this -

Vette flings out two small disks that latch onto the droids. There's a whirr and then they power down.

With a rush of power, Gimrizh lets the force connection go and staggers back, taking a deep breath of putrid air.

"Damn," Vette says as she saunters over to the droids. "Those are single use, too." She rips open their back plating with practiced ease and plugs her own tiny datapad into the mess of wires and parts. "Give me a minute."

"Sixty seconds exactly?"

"You know what I - nevermind."

She leans against the walls while Vette works. Ten minutes later, her friend replaces the casing and powers up the droids. "Ta-da!" she declares as the robots obediently work on opening the doors for them. "We got a droid escort! By the way, nice job with that force thing, boss lady," Vette comments, lightly punching her in the shoulder. "Shall we?"

Gimrizh starts walking into the tunnel. "Of course. It'd be impolite to keep Rylon waiting, now would it."

"Hah hah." Vette says sarcastically as they enter the hallway, their voices drowned out by the roar of bombs and blasters that echoes through the mountain. Behind them, the two repurposed droids follow along as silent sentries.  

Down here, they can hear the sounds of the never ending battle around them while being relatively safe from it all. Despite the heavy bombings and ongoing siege around the factory,  being stuck inside its belly actually isn't the most dangerous place on the planet. Outside, in the thick of things and surrounded by droids, is a death trap. But the Balmorran Arms Factory is the entire reason the Empire is here, and as such, it is too valuable to destroy. All raids are kept light, mostly incendiary bombs that burn up the outside defenses or precision targeted anti aircraft cannons to stop any resistance - or Republic - ships from landing. Any large scale orbital strike bombs, the sort that reduce cities to slag, are entirely off limits in this conflict. The Empire can't afford to damage the factory beyond repair, and as a result, the fighting is kept on the ground and the war drags on.

Gimrizh must admit, she's never been in a warzone before Balmorra. Korriban is only dangerous in the sense that the planet itself is actively trying to kill people. It's common to hear of acolytes dying from getting lost in a tomb or falling to one of the many predatory species that roam it's wastelands. Fighting against invaders has never been a concern. Korriban has always been a solid foundation of Imperial strength, a planet held firmly in the Empire's grasp and kept protected. But Balmorra is nothing like Korriban. It's danger doesn't come from the terrain or the wildlife, rather from the people that inhabit it. It's such a dull and miserable place because that's how the people who live here are. Even her memories of Korriban hold occasional bursts of happiness as a result of someone she used to know. Balmorra isn't the eclectic menagerie that the Sith Order is - it's full of people who are either desperate to leave or are busy blowing up bits of it.

Although it's only a theory of hers given that she hasn't had the chance to speak with him on the subject, she suspects Lieutenant Quinn falls in the first category. Something about his reluctance to have anything of value here and his dedication to service speak of a person with ambition that extends beyond this miserable world.

In contrast, the resistance is the second category. Even though they claim to fight for Balmorra, they don't hesitate to blockade themselves inside their most precious landmarks or plant explosives in areas they claim to want free. If they really want what is best for Balmorra then they would either surrender to the Empire or officially ally with the Republic. Joining one of the two powers would let the planet be protected by the Treaty of Coruscant, and even though the treaty is falling apart at the seams, it would be a better fate for the planet. As they are right now, the resistance is effectively fighting the Republic's war against the Empire prematurely.

"Hey," Vette says, interrupting her musings. "I’m sorry I got mad about Durmat. I still want you to talk things through with me first and all, but I’m not pissed about what you did anymore. I just… I want you to know that."

“Thank you,” Gimrizh replies slowly. “I do promise to consult with you on these matters when I can - It’s simply that there’s not always a lot of room when it comes to Baras’s orders.”

A deep sigh resonates from Vette. “I guess letting that kid live isn't something his pudginess would allow, huh?"

"I suspect not." Gimrizh replies.

Every impression she gets of Baras is that of a sly predator, someone who will be moved to swift and permanent action by the slightest sign of weakness. It's not a chance she is willing to give him.

Vette’s feet drag slightly as they keep walking towards the end of the tunnel. “How does it not bother you - ”

“We’re here,” Gimrizh says suddenly, cutting off Vette. They’ve come to a stop in front of a smaller metal door, and two separate hallways branching off to the sides.

She punches a button on the door control pad and with a hiss of metal, the door slides open.

“I know you cut me off,” Vette says quietly, “And I’ll bring it up later. But I have to be a little worried right now because that is a lot of Republic soldiers."

It is.

They're standing in the base of a valley, only a couple hundred feet of open space between them and the entrance to the administrative complex Rylon is holed up in. It looks a hell of a lot farther away than it actually is. The entire valley is crawling with Republic troops. They've got ships hovering in the air space above the canyon and large transmitter towers set up in the rock. Squads of troopers stand guard at entrances and at the docks, and as they watch, another group of troops marches off the gangplank of a docked Republic shuttle. And above them, tied down with heavy metal cables, is a massive Republic warship, only slightly smaller than an average Star Destroyer.

There are times like now, where Gimrizh is almost terrified by just how nonexistent the Treaty of Coruscant really is. The entire galaxy acts like it'll hold, at least for a little while longer, but it won't. It's just a temporary armistice to allow both sides to regain their strength and rebuild their weapons of mass destruction before the war stars raging once again.

"We need to go there," Gimrizh says, pointing at the door across from them. It's not far and there aren't any troops between it and them but it is still very dangerous. Vette has a right to be worried. "Stay low, stay quiet. Our escorts will be useful but we can't count on anything. This is where the resistance is regrouping, there isn't a battle here to cover our movements."

Vette nods and follows her as they creep along the canyon floor, trying to look natural. Like they belong. Like they shouldn't be killed on sight.

"I know what I'm doing," the Twi'lek mutters, although it sounds more like she's trying to convince herself of that, "This is just like the Headhunter. Nothing I haven't handled before. I'll be fine. I can do this."

They steel their breath as a patrol passes right past them - nothing happens. She supposes that two Republic battle droids are good cover, and, well - they're two sub-species. They don't look Imperial.

Once the soldiers have passed, Gimrizh frowns and whispers, "What's the Headhunter?"

Vette waves her hand flippantly. "A ship. It was a pirate thing - It happened a while ago, long story."

A radio transmitter station provides them with a bit of temporary cover - they're closer to the door now, maybe twenty feet away.

"I'll have to hear that story sometime," Gimrizh comments.

"Maybe later."

"Oh no now is a perfect time. It isn't like we're walking through a valley filled with pubs who will shoot us if they figure out who we are or anything - of course later!"

"Well someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed."

"Someone hasn't slept in almost four days."

There's a guard droid by the door, whose eye piece focuses in on them as soon as they approach. It barely has time to beep aggressively before it gets a lightsaber through its head for its troubles.

Vette fiddles with the lock on the door before she gets it open.

They rush inside and the door slams shut behind them.

The inside of the administrative complex is eerie, old office buildings and storage rooms turned into war bunkers. Sandbags blockade certain halls and others are marked up with heavy blaster fire.

Gimrizh consults the map again to ensure they're going the right way. Rylon's bunker is one floor below them and a bit ahead. They're very close now. Not much longer until she has to kill the spy and then she can finally return to Sobrik and finish her mission.

They take an elevator down, which is slightly surreal.

This floor is split, the left wing and the right wing of the complex, the right wing crawling with droids and soldiers. They, fortunately, go left.

A large blockade barrs the way, rubble covered with barbed wire to discourage anyone from climbing over. But Rylon must be through there and Gimrizh can sense a number of troops behind the barrier. This is it.

"Are you ready?"

Vette shrugs and twirls her blasters, "Why not?" She turns to the droids and gives them a cheerful wave. "Wait out here for us, my good friends!"

Gimrizh takes a deep breath and taps into the force. It's like drawing from a deep well of power, connecting herself to a larger grid of energy that pulls on everything around her. It's part of herself and yet so much bigger than she is; an ever-flowing river and she’s merely a rock that’s been tossed into it..

She raises her hand and reaches out through the force, and then shoves .

The blockade explodes backwards, blown in on itself and leaving an open space.

The two of them step inside.

A half dozen Republic guns are suddenly pointed at their heads.

One troop, wearing the mark plate of a captain, takes a step forward, "So, you must be here for the Commander. We were warned about you."

So the news of Durmat's death must have spread faster than Baras thought. Oh well, it makes no difference now. She is too close to the man himself to be stopped. "Well if you know so much about why we are here then you should know that fighting back is useless."

The captain snorts and gives her a dubious look, "We've fought your kind before. The Commander has a few words for you."

He places a portable holo on top of the crates he's hiding behind.

When the holo starts to glow with the light of whoever is calling, it illuminates Rylon himself.

"Ah, Commander Rylon," Gimrizh says pleasantly. "You must be hiding somewhere quite nearby. I don't know what you hope to accomplish by not showing your face, but it will cost your men their lives."

He doesn't look concerned, "Sith. You should be more worried about how you will survive my troops. Captain," he says, turning his head toward the soldier, "I'm on my way. Hold the line."

And then the line goes out and Rylon vanishes.

The captain grins and hefts his blaster to aim it at her head, "Try to survive at least a minute or so, Sith, it'll be no fun otherwise."

Gimrizh just stares at them, drawing a muffled laugh from Vette as she replies. "I'll try my best not to be too bored."

"Kill her!" He snarls and all the soldiers start firing.

They're skilled, Gimrizh allows as she uses her saber to deflect their shots and keep her body between them and Vette. As soldiers go, she can see how they would be a formidable force on a battlefield. But she's not a usual enemy, she's a Sith, trained in blade work and hand to hand combat. They haven't rigged the terrain against her or sabotaged her weapons and they’re lacking their commanding officer. It’s easy to get into close quarters with them, where her blade has the advantage over their blasters. They’re unprepared and she isn't.

It's easy for her to cut down two soldiers, one right after another with two quick slashes to the torso, while Vette takes another two down. Their skills mesh well, despite having only fought together for a relatively short period of time. She draws the fire and Vette takes advantage of the lack of attention to shoot as many soldiers as she can.

Gimrizh puts her saber through the last soldier’s neck after a few minutes of fighting, leaving only the captain left.

He pulls a vibroblade from his hip pocket and slashes at her, making her drop to her knees to keep her throat from being slit. Despite her knees stinging from the ungraceful fall, she quickly kicks off from the ground and leaps backwards to avoid the sharp kick he tries to plant in her gut. It’s clear he hasn’t skimped on his training, and she’s hard pressed to keep out of his longer reach.

But he's not nearly as skilled as she is.

She neatly dodges his first few cuts and barely taps him on the shoulder, leaving a searing scorch mark in her blade's wake. The captain grunts in pain and tries to cut at her sword hand, lunging awkwardly with his knife, thrown off balance by his injury.

With a showy flick of her wrist, she avoids his lunge while her blade winds around and through his wrist. Both his hand and the knife fall to the floor, wrenching a scream from between his teeth.

A heavy kick to his gut sends him falling down. He crouches on the ground, bent around his severed hand protectively, face contorted in rage and injury.

"Damn you!" He growls at her, "Commander Rylon should be here already!"

A presence tickles the back of her neck and she is suddenly aware that they aren't quite as alone as they think.

"Captain," a fourth voice says, "Sith."

In unison, everyone turns to stare at Commander Rylon as he enters the room. The Commander looks tired, no other word for it. Tired and ready to give up. Not even the way Vette’s suddenly got both blasters trailed on him makes him so much as blink. He simply pulls out a data pad and punches in a series of instructions.

A moment later, every single camera in the room suddenly goes out with a shower of sparks.

Perhaps he is clever, despite his monumental lapse in judgement when he revealed his true identity to his son.

The captain looks perplexed, "Commander? What's going on?"

"Yes," Gimrizh says, looking at Rylon. It's his grave. He dug it and now he must lie in it. She almost pities the man because in a way, they're both in the same ship. Once Baras no longer has use for her, she suspects she'll go the same way as his spies. "Why don't you tell your man the truth?"

Rylon, standing less than a few feet away from them now, sighs deeply, his eyes sad. "Very well, Sith."

"What truth?" the captain demands.

Rylon gives his soldier a long look, "I’m sorry, Captain. I am and have always been a servant of the Empire." And then before the captain can do anything more than gape, Rylon pulls out his blaster and shoots him in the head.

In the silence that follows, Rylon slowly lowers his smoking blaster.

"They were exceptional men," he admits at last.

"Why didn't you convert them to the Empire’s cause?" she asks, looking at the dead bodies that litter the floor.

"Because Lord Baras didn't ask me to," he tells her - and it's such a distasteful thought, that they have just wasted these men and the potential they represent. "I've been serving undercover for a long time. Had to do some things I'm not proud of. I've had to become a Republic soldier in many ways, working against the Empire and doing things that sicken me."

"You've done good work for the Empire,” Gimrizh says solemnly, “It’s a shame it’s come to this.”

Rylon tightens his grip on the blaster clutched in his slightly shaking hand, “And by ‘this’ you mean Lord Baras betraying me and sending one of his hands to kill me?” At her silence he gives a short bitter laugh. “I’ve spent so long as his loyal servant - and now it means nothing to him This will be your end too, you know.”

“I know,” she tells him honestly.

“And…” Rylon is almost begging as he slowly asks, “My son… ?”

She can’t tell him the truth, she can’t tell him about the torture. “I didn’t draw it out. You’ll see him soon.”

Rylon looks away and sighs. “I see. Tell Lord Baras it has been an honor to serve.”

Before he can turn to face her again, she cleaves his head from his shoulders.

It’s a swift death. Hopefully, he didn’t feel much, which is the least she can do for him after many long years of service to Baras. It is a shame. Rylon hadn’t done anything wrong, hadn’t betrayed the Empire. He had kept his head down, done what he’d been told, and merely gotten caught between Baras and Nomen Karr in their struggle for power.

“Well that was depressing,” Vette comments.

Gimrizh deactivated her lightsaber and clips it back on to her belt, “You were expecting something cheery?”

That’s when her holo starts beeping.

As she fishes it out of her pockets, she wonders who in the galaxy could possibly be calling her. She’s finished her mission, there’s no reason for the lieutenant or Baras to assign her another task or send her running off to another corner of this miserable planet. She’s done here, there aren’t any other of Baras’ spies on this planet that he wants dead, surely?

It’s the lieutenant.

“My lord,” Quinn says, his tone a touch too hurried for her to think this is just a congratulatory call, “I must inform you that I heard the entire conversation between you and Rylon.”

“What? I thought Rylon took down the cameras - did you tap into a secondary holo feed?”

He looks more concerned than anything else. “I was tracking the Republic investigator actually, when she led me to you. She has recording devices placed around the factory. I heard everything, but so did she.”

“Damn it,” Gimrizh swears under her breath. If the investigator has a record of this conversation then Nomen Karr wouldn’t need Rylon alive, he’d have everything he needs to prove his padawan’s talents on a single datacard of information. “Where’s the investigator now? I have to stop her before she gets the information to the Republic.”

“She was heading towards a ship in Gorinth canyon, but I sent soldiers to cut her off,” he tells her. “I’m systematically eliminating her methods of escape. She’s heading to the only remaining route, the spaceport in Sobrik.”

So much for the treaty. “Sobrik is our territory, what’s she doing?” Gimrizh asks, more to herself than to the Lieutenant.

“I don’t think she is thinking very clearly,” the Lieutenant says. “She’s running out of options. I will head to the spaceport myself as soon as I can and meet you there. The investigator will be going to hangar bay sixty-one, where the only independently registered ship currently in Sobrik is docked. And my lord, do be careful. As far as I can tell, the investigator is a Jedi knight.”

“Thank you Lieutenant,” she says, and then switches off the holo.

Vette’s face turns a pale powder blue, “A Jedi knight? Like an actual full on Jedi? I know you fought that padawan but - you’re going to have to fight a Jedi knight?”

Yeah. She is. She hopes she doesn’t die tragically doing it.

~*~

They haul ass back to Sobrik and make it to the city in just under two hours, having pushed their speeder beyond its usual limits.

Gimrizh storms into the spaceport, with Vette trailing at her heels. A couple of guards try to stop them, demanding to see identification, but are quickly stopped as soon as she places a hand on her lightsaber. Even the lowest of soldiers in the Empire know better than to get in the way of a Sith on a mission.

As soon as they enter the hangar bay, Gimrizh can sense the Jedi’s presence in the force. Although she isn’t necessarily the best at detecting others through the force, the Jedi burns brightly, a shining star in her senses.

The Jedi is arguing with the port authorities, but waves them off as soon as Gimrizh gets close. She signals for Vette to hang back, as this is likely to get ugly and her friend is in no way prepared for a duel between two force users.

The investigator is a human woman, middle-aged and with a steady demeanor. “Sith,” she says, and it’s almost a pleasant sort of greeting. She’s calm, unaggressive even though all laws of the galaxy say that they are mortal enemies. “It’s a pleasure to meet someone who has managed to best me thrice throughout the course of my investigation. I am Jedi knight Mashallon, may I have your name?”

“Pleasure,” she says curtly. “My name is Gimrizh Korribanil.”

“I’m afraid you’re too late, Gimrizh,” Mashallon tells her, “I’ve already transmitted the conversation to the Jedi Council. While you might have had an advantage earlier, you have failed. Unlike you I am calm and have purity of purpose. I seek neither satisfaction or thrills. The shortcuts that you have taken to gain power will bring about your own failure. I ask that you surrender. The Jedi Council will be merciful and take every step necessary to redeem you if you go quietly.”

Are all Jedi this optimistically naive? It’s not even the first time someone has mentioned she could be a Jedi and, having already considered the possibility, she knows how rotten that offer is. Perhaps Mashallon is like all Jedi, and all Jedi want to redeem their enemies. Or perhaps Mashallon is unique, and the rest are as Gimrizh has been taught, hypocritical puritans who meddle everywhere they go.

“I think it’s rather a bit late for that,” she tells the Jedi instead. "Don't you have anything better to do than attempt to convert your enemies?"

Her face falls slightly - had she actually gotten her hopes up? “That’s regrettable. I won’t kill you, but I will incapacitate you.”

Gimrizh activates her saber. “Shame. I don’t do well with incapacitation.”

“Prepare yourself,” The Jedi warns, her blue lightsaber glowing and throwing her face into bright light.

Like plunging into icy water, Gimrizh pulls on the force and lunges for the Jedi.

Their blades meet with a burst and hiss of energy, red against blue that burns almost purple when the plasma streams collide.

Fighting against another force user is so very inherently different from fighting against anyone else that despite having fought all over the planet for the past few days, Gimrizh feels utterly unprepared as she ducks and weaves around Mashallon’s strikes. She’s fought a Jedi before, the padawan on Brentaal Star , but that had been an inexperienced child and this is a fully fledged Jedi knight. The difference is almost staggering.

Mashallon is balanced, attacking gracefully and defending with strength. She goes for non-lethal strikes, sweeping low to cut at Gimrizh’s feet and then a moment later follows up with a slash meant to cut off her arm.

The two quick strikes force Gimrizh into a hasty flip as she must fall back to avoid losing her hand or her legs. She reactivates her blade as soon her toes touch the ground, then lunges forward to strike at the Jedi’s exposed chest. It fails, Mashallon is too good for something that simple to work and manages to block the attack with ease, her blue saber sending Gimrizh’s red one skidding off uselessly to the side.

It’s a roaring rhythm, their blades clashing and colliding as they meet each other strike for strike, like a well coordinated dance. It doesn’t last.

Mashallon advances and uses a strong blow to knock Gimrizh’s saber to the side. In the brief moment that follows, when Gimrizh’s arm shakes from the collision and she is just a second too slow, Mashallon attacks.

Her saber sears a hot line of pain across Gimrizh’s shoulder.

White stars burst behind her eyes. Gimrizh hastily retreats on unsteady feet and clutches her free hand to her wound. Lightsaber burns are a whole different class of pain, and even a small injury sends adrenaline pumping through her blood. She hisses in agony, a low growl that grows into anger.

The Jedi is too calm, too placid - Gimrizh has to beat her with what she knows best.

Her blood rushes and pounds in her ears, bringing with it the familiar hum of the dark side and the fire of rage that promises unending power.

Fuck all that crap the Jedi was spouting about the dark side failing her. The dark side isn’t a shortcut, it’s just a different choice. And for Gimrizh, raised to pull on only that one side of the force, to use it as an extension of her body, to fall back on its power when nothing else remains, it’s the only choice.

Snarling with rage, she slides into a pure Juyo stance and lunges.

She slashes with her saber with renewed ferocity, spinning around to gain momentum and force as she continuously attacks.

Mashallon seems shocked by her sudden anger, deflecting each cut with lessening strength until she is forced to leap back.

Taking advantage of her opponent’s retreat, Gimrizh stalks forward. Her lightsaber hums dangerously as she twirls it around and around in her palm, and then around and around her body, kicking up energy as she advances.

The Jedi takes a deep breath and raises her lightsaber. Even now, even fighting, she still isn’t flustered. It’s almost an admirable quality.

Gimrizh attacks suddenly, swinging her blade across her body to slash and hack at the Jedi’s torso. With more concentration now, Mashallon blocks each blow, twisting her blade around in the palms of her hands to meet each wild strike Gimrizh throws at her.

The dark side isn’t orderly, it isn’t precise, and neither is Gimrizh when she taps into it. It leads to pure unfocused energy and anger, and she uses that to direct her strikes. Despite not having great physical strength, she uses the force to channel power straight into her limbs and out through her saber. She spins on the balls of her feet and slams the weight of her whole body and the force into her enemies blade.

Mashallon staggers back before skidding to a stop and lunging forward.

But the Jedi’s on the defensive now and Gimrizh has the advantage. Using her free hand, she catches Mashallon’s wrist before the heat of the lightsaber can so much as touch her.

“What?” Mashallon gasps, twisting her wrist around and then striking out with her other hand, trying to bring her blade back into her control.

Gimrizh doesn’t let her. She twists her wrist, snatching the Jedi’s lightsaber out of her hand and then planting a heavy kick on her chest.

With a pained cry, Mashallon is sent crashing backwards and Gimrizh flips her conquered blade around in her hand.

Before Mashallon can so much as stand up, Gimrizh crosses both sabers around her opponent’s neck.

A dozen looks pass through Mashallon’s eyes, fear, panic, confusion, and then finally acceptance. She sighs, letting out a long breath of air that seems to take all the fight out of her as it leaves her lungs, “So. I - I am defeated.”

Gimrizh tries to slow her breathing, get her hearts beat back to something resembling normal, tries to flush the heady effects of the dark side from her system. She finally calms her shaking hands enough to look the Jedi in the eyes with rationality, instead of blind anger. “You fought well, for a Jedi. You simply couldn’t beat the dark side.”

Mashallon still is unfazed. “I am at peace. No power could ever compare to that.”

“Hmm,” Gimrizh pretends to think on that for a moment. “I still think I prefer victory.”

“You haven’t won,” Mashallon says calmly, “None of this matters. The Jedi Council has all the proof they need to mark Rylon as a traitor. My work is a success.”

That’s when they get interrupted.

Pure relief floods through Gimrizh as Lieutenant Quinn strides into the hangar bay, followed by a dozen soldiers, all armed with heavy blasters and ready to subdue the Jedi. The soldiers quickly spread out, circling around Mashallon and Gimrizh, containing the fight in case the Jedi somehow manages to get to her feet and make a run for it.

The lieutenant points his blaster at Mashallon. “I hate to burst your bubble, Jedi,” he says smugly. “Hm, no, that’s a lie, I’m actually reveling in it.”

“Lieutenant Quinn. I can’t say how much of a relief it is to hear that,” Gimrizh replies, letting out a breath of tension and letting her lightsabers drop from their place at Mashallon’s neck.

A thin smirk slides onto his face. “I’m only doing my job. I took the liberty of intercepting her transmissions - the Jedi Council doesn’t know anything.”

Mashallon’s entire body sags, and then she opens her eyes and stares at Gimrizh. “This means nothing. I am at peace. You will not - cannot win. Strike me down, I will not resist.”

It would be so easy. So very easy to slide the Jedi’s own lightsaber through her neck and end her life with a single effortless blow. But now that the rush of battle has left her, Gimrizh looks down at her enemy with both anger and a cold rationality. She wants to kill the Jedi, but she doesn’t want to want it. A few years ago she would have done it. Gimrizh tightens her grip on both blades and then finally deactivates them.

She clips her saber back onto her belt and drops the Jedi’s onto the ground as if it will burn her hand. “Killing you would be a waste,” she says at last. “I imagine there’s quite a lot of information a Jedi investigator would have to know regarding Nomen Karr.”

In the wake of her statement Mashallon just gapes at her, incredulous.

Lieutenant Quinn signals to a group of soldiers. “Take her to the main prison and make sure she is thoroughly restrained.”

The troopers cuff her and drag her away, and the whole time Mashallon still keeps staring at Gimrizh like she can't believe her own eyes. It's so unnerving that Gimrizh has to turn away from the fallen Jedi.

"Keeping the Jedi for interrogation is a clever move, my lord. I find you have once again exceeded my expectations.” Quinn bows sharply, "I'll return to my office as soon as possible - when you are ready, I will contact Lord Baras for your report."

"Thank you," she says with a nod and then the lieutenant leaves.

She kneels down and picks up the lightsaber that she had tossed aside earlier.

As she has come to expect from lightsabers, the hilt is still warm, the heat from the core still clinging to the metal even though the blade isn't active. It's a delicate hilt, not particularly refined but small and compact. Gimrizh thinks of her own blade, taken from the corpse of a long dead lord. Did Mashallon build this herself? Did she study weaponcraft, or did a she simply let the force guide her?

What to do with the blade?

Destroy it? Disassemble it into its bare parts and reuse them? Keep it as a trophy? She knows Baras does something similar, she's seen how he keeps Tremel's hand in a jar as a reminder of that particular victory. Surely, she doesn’t want to become her master. And yet the temptation remains, that lingering desire to take the weapon, to use it for parts if nothing else.

"Vette!" She calls out, striding over to her accomplice. "Take this back to the ship, then wait for me at the lieutenant's office, please."

Vette takes the hilt and mock salutes. "It was the 'please' that did it."

Time to talk to Baras again.

~*~

The distant knowledge that as soon as she finishes this she can sleep is the only motivation that gets her back to Lieutenant Quinn’s office without collapsing on the way there. Once she gives her final report to Baras, she’ll be done and then she can get a good night’s sleep before leaving this horrible planet. Although, she shouldn’t get too hopeful, as she had been thinking the same thing right before she had to fight a Jedi knight.

She’s so tired that in a moment of stupidity and weakness, she wanders right into the lieutenant’s office without noticing that she is interrupting a holo-call.

“-not my place to say,” the lieutenant is saying to the translucent figure of Baras.

Baras looks up and sees her, “Ah my apprentice, you’ve returned. Lieutenant Quinn was waiting for you before updating me. What of the Jedi, has the investigator been stopped?”

Gimrizh bows briefly and then tries to think of the best way to word this. “She isn’t a problem anymore, master. We took her into custody and I can have her transported to Dromund Kaas if you wish it.”

“Good,” Baras says, “Keep her on Balmorra for now, I’d prefer not to make a scene out of this. It is important is that the Jedi Council remain in the dark about our activities, and on that front we have succeeded. Tell me, how would you assess Lieutenant Quinn’s contribution?”

“He is an exceptional officer,” Gimrizh says honestly. Why is Baras… She’d known Baras was evaluating her during this mission, but was he doing the same to Quinn? “I don’t believe I would have been able to accomplish your orders without him.”

The lieutenant looks shocked by her statement, and just stares at her for a moment. He shouldn’t be so surprised, it isn’t like she was lying. He was an incredibly valuable asset during her mission and he deserves recognition. She knows that working for Baras tends to beget far more stress and pain than glory. If putting in a good word with Baras would help him, it’s only fair for her to do so.

“Hm,” Baras turns back to the lieutenant, “Quinn, consider your debt to me paid. I’m putting you up for a captaincy and issuing an order to let you be stationed wherever you want.”

“I- Thank you,” Quinn replies, slightly breathless. “Anywhere is preferable as long as I serve the Empire,” he looks back at Gimrizh. “My lord, it has been an honor to serve you. You are an exemplary Sith.”

With a final bow, he leaves the room.

As soon as he’s left, Baras remarks, “And that is how best to utilize an Imperial servant. You know I am unaccepting of failure, but rewards have their place and you should learn when to use both. You worked well with Lieutenant Quinn.”

She, just like Quinn, is simply another pawn for Baras to play with. “Thank you, master.”

“We have much work ahead of us,” Baras continues. “As many plans as Nomen Karr has, we must have twice as many ways to destroy him. Disposing of Rylon may have bought us valuable time, but Noman Karr and that damn padawan of his will still be working to uncover my spy network.”

Ah yes, there is another spy that Gimrizh has to kill off, she had almost forgotten. “Your spy on Nar Shaddaa is next, correct?”

“Correct,” he agrees, “Holo me as soon as your ship reaches Nar Shaddaa and we will begin to plan our offensive. You must focus on protecting my network while I hunt the padawan. I’ll scour the entire galaxy if necessary.”

“Yes, master,” she bows to him as the holo flickers out and goes dark.

She takes a deep breath, relieved that her time here is finally over. At least Baras didn’t become furious with her for letting the Jedi live. That would be disastrous. If he sees her as becoming lenient or merciful he’ll drop her like a hot rock. Whatever moment of weakness caused her to spare the Jedi can’t crop up again. She can't do that again, whatever pathetic emotion caused her to do such a thing is too dangerous to be allowed to continue.

It’s unbecoming of a Sith to spare lives, especially Jedi lives.

Gimrizh leaves the office with her head still in the clouds, uncertain of what Nar Shaddaa will hold for her and desperate to get some sleep.

To her mild surprise, Vette isn’t waiting outside the office like she had asked. Probably she fell asleep as soon as she had gotten back to the ship. Gimrizh can’t blame her for that, it’s been a long time with little rest on Balmorra. Definitely not a planet she’d look forward to returning to.

She makes her way slowly back to the spaceport, her feet dragging on the streets of Sobrik.

Seeing her ship parked in the hangar bay feels like coming back home after a long tiring day of work and she heads up the gangplank as fast as she can force her tired body to move.

True to her prediction, Vette is passed out on the lounge chairs and lightly snoring.

Gimrizh barely manages to slap a kolto patch on her shoulder wound before falling into her bed and sleeping.

~*~

Lieutenant, now Captain, Malavai Quinn is in the middle of submitting his reassignment paperwork and cleaning out his barracks when his private holo communicator starts beeping.

"Lord Baras," he says as soon as he answers the call, somewhat surprised to speak to the Sith so soon. He'd thought that what with Rylon and the Jedi being taken care of, Lord Baras would have better things to do that contact one of his network for the second time in only a handful of hours. "How can I serve you?"

"I received and read over your report," Baras says, "Your analysis of my apprentices skills was very thorough and quite fascinating. I am... surprised she spared the Jedi knight, but it is no matter."

Malavai isn't sure where this conversation is leading, but to be honest, he's rather gotten used to it after so long of working under Baras. "Thank you, my lord."

“Your report was very unbiased,” Baras continues. “I know how she fights and treats the slave and her actions in hunting Rylon but I cannot observe them myself. You must observe her for me - tell me what your opinion of my apprentice is."

"She's effective," is the first thing that comes to Malavai's mind because it is the least opinionated thought he has about her. "She seems either uneducated or uncaring about formality and let's the Twi'lek slave address her with blatant disrespect."

Baras makes a thoughtful noise at that comment. "Would you say that the two of them are close?"

He doesn't know, he only say them interact mainly in combat situations, which are hardly the best scenario to judge interpersonal relationships. "They could be," is his noncommittal response. "I admit I didn't have much time to observe the two of them interact."

"And her loyalties?" Baras asks.

"She's completely loyal to you and the Empire," he says without hesitation, "I saw nothing that would tell me otherwise. She spoke of serving you with pride and appeared eager to do your bidding."

Baras thinks on this for a moment and then seems almost pleased. "Good. She’s nothing special, but the role she has to play in taking down Nomen Karr’s padawan is crucial. It would be regrettable if her loyalties ever wavered. Subsequently, I have a new assignment for you, Captain."

Nomen Karr has a padawan? So that’s what this is about. That said, Malavai is somewhat stunned. He hadn’t expected Lord Baras to reveal such sensitive information, especially after ensuring that he remain in the dark about this particular matter throughout the mission. "Of course, my lord."

"Join my apprentice's crew," Baras orders. "Nothing insidious, merely keep an eye on her. I want reports on her activities. If she seems to falter in her course, correct her. And if she ever betrays me, kill her."

And now his skill set includes assassination as well, what a way to a start what he had hoped would be a new career. But he owes Baras everything he has and he knows that Baras works with the good of the Empire in mind. "As you wish, my lord. I will intercept her before she departs Balmorra."

"Good luck," Baras says as the holo goes out, "Captain."

~*~

Twelve standard hours later, Gimrizh finally wakes up.

A good night’s sleep can do wonders, she thinks, as she feels far more refreshed and bouncy than she has for a long time now. Vette is still napping, and she quietly heads to the medical bay without disturbing her friend’s rest.

Lightsaber burns are nasty and the one that runs from the edge of her right clavicle across to her mid-deltoid is no exception. It’s a couple centimeters deep, give or take, and a bright painful red color. Gimrizh’s medical training covers emergency basics and nothing else. She knows it won’t kill her but that’s about it.

She rips off the hastily applied patch that she applied earlier and searches the medical supplies for something bigger. There are a couple of heavy bandages and some surprisingly undiluted kolto and she wraps her shoulder a couple of times until the pressure takes some of the pain away.

Unfortunately her shirt is ruined. There’s a huge tear through all three layers of fabric, big enough for Gimrizh to stick her hand all the way through and wiggle her fingers.

With a groan she tosses the shirt away and leans back on the medical bed, letting her shoulder rest against the cold glass of the kolto tank. Either they need to get a medic, or one of them needs to start learning how to patch up basic injuries. Although if she keeps getting in fights with Jedi, basics aren't going to cut it.

“Hey there!” Vette says cheerily, sticking her head into the medical bay.

Her clothes are rumpled and she still looks like she’s shaking off the last bits of sleep but apart from that Vette looks like her usual beauty star self. Probably one of the good things about having lekku instead of hair is no bed head. In a moment of vain self-consciousness, Gimrizh drags her fingers through her short hair and hopes that it doesn’t look too terrible.

Gimrizh sits up properly. “I see you slept well.”

“You bet!” Vette replies with a consistent level of cheer. “Do we have a deadline to get to Nar Shaddaa?”

“No,” Gimrizh says with a shake of her head. “Baras didn’t say so, at least.”

Vette grins. “Great!”

Instant suspicion sneaks into her mind. That is way too much happiness for anything good especially considering that both of them hate this planet and have made no illusions otherwise. Clearly, Vette is up to something.

“You are too happy.”

“Aw, did you forget? You promised I could get you drunk later. Well, later is now and I found a cantina a block away from the spaceport so let’s go party!”

Gimrizh just groans.

“Come on!” Vette puts her hands on her hips, unmovable, “It’ll be fun!”

“Resistance is futile, isn’t it?”

“You know me too well! Now get up and let’s go get you drunk, you alcohol virgin!”

“If I get up now, do you promise to never call me that ever again?”

“Sure!”

“Fine,” Gimrizh relents.

Vette ducks back out, yelling over the shoulder, “And don’t forget to put on a shirt! You’re not allowed to wear black, dark brown, or grey.”

“But…” She blinks at the empty space Vette was just occupying. “I don’t have anything else.”

Half an hour later, the two of them are sitting at the counter of a seedy bustling cantina somewhere in the western half of Sobrik.

Some kind of beep-y music is being played by a couple of enthusiastic musicians in the back of the cantina and the rest of the building is filled with loud chattering people, mainly soldiers or officers. The two of them are almost the only two aliens in the room, with the exception of a couple Chiss and a gang of Mandalorians. At Vette’s insistence, Gimrizh is drinking from a glass of something-or-other that tastes sharp and smells amazing. Vette is drinking her second large mug of beer, which Gimrizh tried a sip of but thinks is incredibly disgusting. Like carbonated bread. Why people all around the cantina are chugging it like there’s no tomorrow is beyond all her understanding.

But they’re here, which actually is an improvement on their previous state of half-awakeness onboard the ship. And, unlike pretty much their entire time on Balmorra, they don’t have a deadline or a rush to get anywhere.

Vette drains her absurdly large mug of beer and wipes her mouth on her sleeve. “Man, this place isn’t half bad, for a shitty warzone planet!”

“Good to know that we’re fighting a war to gain control of Balmorra’s liquor supplies,” Gimrizh says sarcastically, “And here I was, mistakenly thinking that we were here for its droid factories.”

“Oh shush,” Vette rolls her eyes and starts examining the bottles behind the bar to get a good idea of what her next drink is. “Bartender - barkeep - guy - my good friend!” she calls out to the burly guy cleaning classes. “Get me two shots of - of the red bottle, yeah, yeah that one.”

With a bored efficiency, the bartender fills two glasses and then slides them across the counter to stop in front of Vette.

Vette smiles deviously and puts one glass in front of herself and then the other in front of Gimrizh with a click. What the hells, why not. She grabs the shot glass and raises it up, mirroring Vette’s movements. The liquor burns on the way down, only more pleasantly this time, dry and almost bitter.  

Apparently pleased by this, Vette orders another round. “So, if I take the sarcasm out of you, what’s left?”

“Bitterness,” Gimrizh deadpans.

“Come on, I bet deep down, there’s a soft squishy center,” Vette practically coos, swishing the liquid in her glass around.

Gimrizh raises an eyebrow, “My internal organs?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know you’re not a mean big bad Sith all the time,” she says, “You’re like… nice sometimes. It’s actually really weird. Murder and craziness, I can handle. The occasional niceness, well I ain’t used to that, and especially not from a kriffing Sith!”

“Are you drunk?”

“On my way there. That was actually my goal coming here to a cantina, believe it or not.”

“Please be sober in a few hours.”

“What, why? What are we doing?”

“Flying. To Nar Shaddaa. I can’t believe I have to remind you about this.”

“I love Nar Shaddaa,” Vette admits. “I used to live there for a bit, after Nok Drayen up and vanished.”

There’s a somewhat familiar name. Gimrizh isn’t quite sure where she’s heard the name before and after she’s thrown back her second shot and easily fourth drink of the night, remembering things is becoming surprisingly difficult. “Nok Drayen…” she muses and then the name suddenly rings a bell, “Syndicate Wars?”

“Oh yeah, I always forget he did stuff like that.” A glassy eyed, reminiscent look slides onto Vette’s face, “Never really thought about him and the wars. To me he was always just ‘yes captain’, or ‘sir yes sir’ or stuff like that. Not, you know, wars.”

“You worked under him?”

“Yeah, during his piracy days.”

Pirates, pirates, Vette’s mentioned pirates before. “You were a pirate, right? That’s - “ she hiccups and slaps a hand over her mouth to cover the noise. “How’d you get into that?”

“His crew freed me from this gang leader asshole named Three-eyes. It was crazy, one second it was just a normal night and then the next… Drayen’s ships were everywhere and all Three-eyes’ holdings were in ruins and we were all free. He gave us a choice, which was pretty weird for a bunch of slaves. We could go free and figure out our own path or we could join up with him and the pirate life.”

“So you joined up?”

“Course I did.”

“Weren’t you… a kid or something?”

“I was pretty young, yeah, but it wasn’t… it was pretty great. Rough, but... Some of the best times of my life.”

There’s a moment of silence as Vette gets them both another round of quickly drained drinks. She stares at the empty glass in her hand, looking like the weight of her memories could topple over and smother her at any moment. Gimrizh knows that feeling well, and if she had anyway to help Vette through it, she’d try. But she doesn’t know what to do, she doesn’t know how to make such things better. And thinking about this right now is so difficult.

Gimrizh leans forward to pat Vette on the shoulder and misses. “Uh - sorry,” she says awkwardly. “You look - not great.”

“Psh, I look great all the damn time.” Vette looks up at her and grins. “How’s the booze treating you?”

“My head’s fuzzy.” But Gimrizh is so warm inside and she feels all - all tingly. Like using the force except not. Also is she louder? She can’t tell. “But I’m fine - I am so fine -”

“You know who’s fine?” Vette laughs and points a finger at someone sitting behind them. “Her.”

Gimrizh spins in her seat and almost falls over - note to self, do not spin. The world is very blurry now. The person Vette’s pointing at is a scruffy looking Cathar, a couple blasters at their side and a Mandalorian crest burned onto their armor. A bounty hunter maybe? Gimrizh peers at them and tries to focus on what exactly Vette finds good looking there. “I don’t know if I really go for that - that rugged type. Also I think that’s a man?”

“Is he? Fuck, I am really not straight.”

The giggles that tumble from Gimrizh’s lips aren’t ones she can help. She stifles her mirth by finishing off the drink sitting in front of her and damn does it hit her right away.

“So -” Vette’s slumped over the counter. “What’s your type? If it’s not rugged.”

“Nok Drayen.”

Vette spits out her drink and gets a very angry look from the bartender. “What?”

“Not, you know, actually Nok Drayen. Just someone I can call ‘sir yes sir’,” Gimrizh replies with a wink. She thinks it’s a wink. She might just be blinking.

“Fucking hells - “ Vette dissolves into peals of laughter.

That’s when the bartender comes over, wiping up the mess Vette’s made and glaring at them. “I am cutting you two off. Pay up and leave - you spit out my damn fine spirits, you get out of my bar.”

Gimrizh leans forward, pointing a finger at him. “I am a Sith - “

“And you are sooo drunk,” Vette adds, snickering.

You’re drunk.”

“I’m broke, that’s what I am - you gotta pay the tab.”

“Hey you were the one that wanted to do this, you should pay -”

The bartender puts a meaty fist down on the countertop. “One of you,” he says, slowly and threateningly, “is going to pay.”

He’s terrifying. Gimrizh digs into her pockets and dumps a handful of credit chips on the counter before she potentially loses a hand or something. “Fine, fine, we’re leaving.”

“No no no,” Vette protests, “Lemmie take that bottle of vodka with me, please! It’s the only good thing about this dump of a planet! It’s too good to be stuck on this shit planet, it needs to be rescued! Let me give it a better fate!”

It is very delicious, in Vette’s defense. Gimrizh drops another bunch of credit chips onto the counter.

The bartender charges her, and then slams the bottle down in front of Vette, who eagerly scoops it up and hugs it to her chest.

“You’re the nicest!” Vette gushes, taking a long swig from the bottle. “I will treasure this always, or at least until I drink it all.”

“That’s fair.”

Vette slings an arm around Gimrizh’s shoulders, and she finds herself doing the same, her feet unsteady as they stumble out of the bar and into the cold.

Even though it’s late at night, standard time, the streets of Sobrik are still producing their usual trickle of military personnel and harried looking civilians. Gimrizh almost wishes for a deserted city, if only so that she doesn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of staggering back to the spaceport in front of strangers.

As they make their way through the huge corridors of the spaceport towards where the ship is docked, Vette takes a sip of the bottle she’d bought and then passes it to Gimrizh. “One last drink before we pass out?”

“Done.”

Gimrizh hands the bottle back to Vette and then she finally enters their hangar bay to see the beautiful form of her ship sitting in front of them. At last, they can head off this world and into the stars. Gimrizh can get all the sleep she needs, and then they’ll be heading towards a new planet in a new sector with a whole new sky of stars to surround them. Nothing’s better than that. Although she never hated Korriban, not like some of the other acolytes did, she still feels like every day that takes her farther away from where she started is a day worth living. There are so many planets out there that sitting on the same one forever would just be a colossal waste of her life.

“You should have - “ Gimrizh giggles again, poking Vette in the side as they make their way around the side of the ship towards the gangplank. “You should have chatted that Cathar up. You thought he was fine.”

“Nah,” Vette makes a few lewd gestures that are very difficult to interpret given the bottle she’s holding. “Cather women, maybe. Cathar men… They got - you know - spikes. In… places.” She gestures to herself. “I don’t think that’d fit well into my Twi’lek junk. Sounds almost as bad as Red Sith. I bet they have some weird shit in their pants.”

Not quite. “No - no,” she informs Vette with a grin, “Sith guys have ridges.”

Oh dear.

Oh no.

Standing at the base of the ship, lingering somewhat awkwardly in front of a supply crate, crisp officer’s uniform and all, is Lieutenant Quinn.

Or, well, Captain Quinn now.

Ssssshhhh!” She tries to push a snickering Vette off her shoulders without spilling any of the bottle’s contents on herself. She isn’t exactly at her best right now. A flush of embarrassment colors her cheeks, joining the high splotchy redness from being drunk, and she has never been so thankful for the dark black of her tattoos. Oh stars, at least the captain didn’t hear all that stuff about ridges.

Vette blinks at her. “What?” she demands, loudly.

Gimrizh tries to slap her hand over Vette’s mouth - it’s too late. They’re only a few feet away from Quinn and even over the background clatter of the spaceport, he can hear them perfectly fine. He turns around and then freezes. Oh stars, they must look a mess. They probably smell like a cantina. This is horrible. Why can’t Gimrizh remember how to use the force to burn alcohol from her system? Of all the times to forget, why did it have to be now?

Vette tugs herself off of Gimrizh and looks sober enough to cross her arms sternly and stare the captain down. "So it's the stuffy racist officer, back again."

"I am so sorry for Vette’s… everything,” Gimrizh apologizes immediately as Quinn looks suddenly stiff and offended. She has to focus. Focus is key, she can do this. As long as she acts sober, he’ll never know. “What can I do for you Lieutenant - I mean, Captain?"

Fuck.

His eyes narrow as he deliberates his words, as though trying to decide if she’s insulting him or not. And then he catches sight of the bottle Vette’s holding and to her surprise some of that stiffness vanishes as he realizes that they’re both not sober. “I was…” He clears his throat. “I was wondering if I might beg an audience, my lord.”

“You don't have to ask," she says hastily, "Speak your mind."

"I hope you don't find my presence obtrusive - " he starts and then she had to interrupt him almost right away because of course she doesn't and this conversation can't go anywhere with such rigid deference. Technically, they're close in rank, as a captain isn't particularly lower or higher status than her place as a measly apprentice.

"Captain," she says with as much dignity as she can have while wearing one of Vette's neon green shirts and still really feeling all those shots. "I hardly outrank you, please, feel free to say whatever you want.”

Vette groans. “Damn it!” She glares at Quinn. “You ruined her buzz! She’s back to being serious again.”

“Ignore her,” Gimrizh instists. Stars, please ignore her.

Quinn glances between the two of them and tries his best to tune Vette out. He continues with such sincerity that it takes her aback. "I've spent a long time on Balmorra and until now, a reassignment to a less miserable planet was all I wanted. But you and your mission have reawakened the ambition I began my career with. To make the most profound impact for the Empire that I can."

"That's an honorable goal," Gimrizh comments. Service to the Empire, that she can relate to. She was raised to obey the Sith Order and the Empire, it's in her blood, and it's a comfort to see it reflected in Quinn, who she has found herself admiring over the course of this mission.

He smiles slightly, and it isn't tinted with smugness or pride, just agreement. It becomes him. "Thank you, my lord. What I'm trying to say is that I can't think of a better way to serve than with you. If you'll have me, I pledge myself to your cause."

Then to her embarrassment and disbelief, he gets down on one knee and bows his head.

"I-" Flustered, she takes a moment to regain what little composure she can manage. Alcohol still burns red high in her cheeks and the force is only slightly helping. "What are your skills? I already know you're an excellent slicer."

"I'm a top notch pilot, strategist, and a crack shot," he lists, a determined look in his pale blue eyes. "I can fly your ship, plan your battles, and then win them."

That’s an impressive resume. And besides, she finds that she quite likes the Captain with his efficiency and politeness. He'd make a good addition to the small team that is somehow forming around her.

"I'd be happy to have you," Gimrizh agrees readily, "Vette, your thoughts?"

Vette shrugs, "I’ll be honest - I don’t like him.” She shoots Quinn another glare. “Getting you drunk took so much work, you have no idea, and he just ruined it. Fucking buzzkill. But we do need a pilot. I can’t fly this ship alone.”

"Hey! I'm a perfectly respectable pilot," she retorts.

"You're pretty shit, actually," Vette says with complete brutal honesty.

Quinn just looks incredulous. She supposes that having an apparent subordinate insult her to her face isn't something that's usually done or tolerated. Oh well, she's hardly going to punish Vette for speaking her mind. If he serves on her ship, he'll have to get used to it. She's actually curious as to what's beneath the perfect shell of military discipline.

"Welcome aboard, Captain Quinn," Gimrizh says, holding out her hand.

He stands and after a moment of brief hesitation, takes her bare hand in his gloved one. "I'm happy to serve, my lord."

 

Chapter Text

~*~

Thwack!

Gimrizh delivers a solid hit to the dueling droid with her vibroblade and then parries, strikes again, dodges, strikes.

Her shoulder is still healing, and the sore red gouge gets tugged on painfully while she practices, but she’s going to be fighting far more force adepts in the near future, probably Jedi and Sith alike. Definitely people with a whole lot more experience than her, and this cannot happen again.

While she came out of her confrontation with Mashallon as the victor, the difference in power was too close for her liking. The fact that she is currently wincing every time she moves her right shoulder is testament to her weakness. And even though she technically won, it doesn’t feel like a victory. She’d been injured, barely managed to turn the tide, and even then, it had been Quinn who stopped the Jedi’s plans. She had been relatively useless, all things considered. She hates feeling powerless.

An especially painful twinge shoots through her shoulder and her hand spasms, her practice blade falling to the deck.

Sighing in annoyance, she figures that she’d better have a look at her shoulder.

She wipes the sweat off her brow before it can get in her eyes. Of all the reasons she wishes to be human, eyebrows and their ability to keep water and other muck out of her eyes, is one of the more practical ones. She grabs her towel and throws it over her head before bending to pick up her vibroblade and place it on it’s rack.

She makes sure to power down the training droid before leaving the cargo hold. On second thought, she locks it down with a passcode. Vette’s being eyeing the droid’s circuitry lately and their budget doesn’t have room to replace it, should Vette do something irreparable.

There’s the sounds of tinkering from the engine room, so at least Vette is occupied with one of her own projects - probably working on her blasters. She ducks her head inside for a moment as she passes to see what’s going on. Vette’s hunched over a worktable full of blaster parts, doingsomething to a trigger mechanism. Gimrizh has no idea what, she’d never heavily studied mechanics or engineering.

There’s another pulse of pain through her shoulder and when she turns to look, there’s a slowly growing red spot on the bandages. Great. Now she’s reopened the damn wound. Because of course she has.

The med bay isn't unoccupied either. Quinn is rummaging around in the cabinets and organizing the supplies they have.

"Captain," she asks as she steps into the room, "Where did you put the kolto and bandages?"

He drops his armful of supplies, seemingly somewhat startled, "My lord, the kolto-" he pauses in the act of turning to face her and stares at her, his mouth dropping open. "You're not wearing a shirt."

She looks down at her torso, equally as confused as the captain. "No?" She's wearing chest bindings, that's close enough. And besides, why would she wear a shirt when she's sparring? It'd just get dirty anyways and she shouldn't waste energy doing laundry for pointless reasons.

"And you're injured." Quinn follows up with, which seems to a far more important point.

"My shoulder was cut during my fight with the Jedi," she explains, "Nothing serious, but I think I opened it up during my practice today. Just point me at whichever shelf has the kolto and I'll be fine."

He sighs and points a finger at the medical bed, "My lord, if you exacerbate your injury it won't heal. Sit down and I'll take a look."

Obediently, she sits down and peels the layer of bandages off her shoulder. There's a layer of burned tissue on top that's been torn and is bleeding steadily. It didn’t look half as bad when it had been fresh, and although that’s standard for a lightsaber burn, the sight still makes her wince.

"You have training as a medic?" She asks as Quinn runs some kind of diagnostic tool over the surface of her skin.

"I served in the medical corps for a while," Quinn grabs a strange device that she can't identify and a package of kolto-gel. "The cut is shallow, which is fortunate as I doubt this sort of burn would take well to stitches. I'm going to pack it with kolto and then seal it."

The weird green kolto-gel mixture is at first far too cold, then weirdly tingling, and then after a second she can't feel her shoulder at all. She rolls her neck and shoulder muscles around a bit to try and get a feel for the numbness and then Quinn places a hand firmly on her shoulder.

"Please stop trying to make it worse," he says in a slightly exasperated tone, "If you consistently reopen the wound, it will improperly heal and scar."

She shrugs and then finds that she can't shrug while Quinn's holding her shoulder down, "I've had worse.”

“I don’t doubt that, however scar tissue can interfere with mobility and damage muscle if deep enough. Such consequences would negatively affect your combat performance,” he comments, as if reciting from a holotext.

Well. She didn’t know that. “Really?”

Using the weird looking device, Quinn rolls a thin transparent layer down over the gel to keep it in the wound. She has absolutely no idea what it is, which really says a lot about just how little medical knowledge she has been given over the course of her education. In the Institute on Korriban, keeping people alive was never the focus.

Apparently Quinn doesn’t know what her education was like. “Scar tissue lacks the same properties that a normal layer of tissue has. You didn’t know?” He asks incredulously before stumbling, “I don’t mean to question you, my lord, it’s merely that I - incorrectly - presumed such things to be… perhaps more common knowledge.”

Gimrizh just waves it off. “It’s fine. I’m well aware that I know next to nothing about medical care. Sith education focuses more on fighting and using the force. It’ll be good to have a qualified medic on board.”

“I’m happy to serve, my lord,” he replies, grabbing a roll of bandages and starting to wrap the injury, which, honestly, she can do that herself, she’s not completely incompetent. “Raise your shoulder please,” he says absently, trying to tightly wrap the wound.

“Oh sorry, I thought the rule is that I’m not allowed to move it at all,” she mutters sarcastically. But she goes ahead and raises her shoulder anyway.

He coughs in a way that sounds suspiciously like he’s trying not to laugh, “No, the rule is ‘always do what the medic tells you’.”

“A rather vague rule,” she says with a grin and then eyes the needle he’s holding with apprehension, “What’s that?”

Quinn glances down at the syringe in his hand, “A painkiller, my lord.”

Eh. There’s barely any pain now and it’s nothing she can’t handle. “I don’t need it,” she says hastily, pulling her now-bandaged shoulder out of Quinn’s grip.

“Of course, my lord,” he sighs, putting the anesthetic away.

“And you don’t need to call me that. I’m not a lord, I’m just an apprentice. I hardly need a title. Just… call me Gimrizh. That’s what Vette does.”

“That wouldn’t be professional,” he quickly replies.

Ah the struggles of professionalism. She’s never had much use for the rigid formality and hierarchy that runs so heavily through the Empire.

“Well-” she tries to say and then is interrupted by a low beeping from the main holo outside the med bay.

“Is that-?” Quinn asks.

She jolts upright and leaps to her feet, "Darth Baras.” Then she glances down, “I should put on a shirt.”

While the holo call keeps beeping, she runs across the main corridor to her quarters, grabs the first shirt she can find and throws it over her head. A few seconds later, she skids across the metal deck and stands in front of the holo, looking, if not more presentable, then at least dressed. She presses a button on the terminal and answers the call.

“Master,” Gimrizh says as a greeting to the holo-image of Baras, “We’re an hour away from Nar Shaddaa, barring any complications.”

"Excellent," Baras starts to pace on the screen as he talks, his voice crackling with the distance and static, "Nar Shaddaa is a detestable planet - be grateful I won't have you stay long. Your mission here should not take too much of our time."

Gimrizh won't form an opinion on the place before she even steps foot on it, so she just nods at Baras's comments. “Thank you, master. I received and reviewed your package on Agent Dellocon - I presume I’m here to kill him?”

“Correct,” he informs her, “Normally this would be a trifling matter, however the circumstances concerning Agent Dellocon have changed and your information is now outdated. Upon hearing of Rylon’s demise and the similar purge of spies carried out by another agent of mine, Dellocon has found himself an ally. A relatively young Sith Lord named Rathari. The man has taken personal dislike to me and it’s infuriating that the Dark Council has allowed him so much leeway to conduct matters on Nar Shaddaa. Dellocon knows a great about my work and I refuse to allow Rathari to get this knowledge.”

“If Rathari interferes I will-” she tries to say.

“No,” Baras orders, “I don’t care if Rathari strikes first or not. I want you to burn Rathari to the ground and destroy him.”

Those are dangerous orders. Killing a Sith Lord, especially one favored by the Dark Council, is a controversial move at best. One worthy of a swift and brutal execution at worst. It’s not unheard of for some Sith to take out the competition, or so the rumors say, however such maneuvers tend to take the form of bounty hunters or strange accidents. Apprentices killing well liked lords on the other hand, that's not common.

But it's obvious why Baras wants her to do it, even though theoretically he would be more likely to get away with it. It's another piece of blackmail he will have on her. If she stays loyal to him, her assassination of Rathari will remain buried. If she betrays him - even though she could never do so -  he'll use it against her, drag it up in front of the Dark Council and use it to take her out. And of course, she can't refuse. Baras is the cleverest of masters and his hold on her is unshakable.

"As you wish, master," she intones. There's no choice here, regardless of how much she might detest him for trapping her in this position. He's too good a player for her to ever contend with.

"Your contact will be Halidrell Setsyn, she runs my slave operations on Nar Shaddaa. Do not fail me," Baras adds and then the call drops.

“Well,” Vette says, leaning against the hull in the hallway. She must have heard the holo and stopped working on her blasters in favor of snooping. “This is going to be fun. I love Nar Shaddaa. Great shopping, great views… Now the whole murder and complete destruction thing, not so much. Maybe I could be in charge of the tourism and you can be in charge of all lightsaber adjacent things?”

As much as Vette’s desire to take a break from the hard work should annoy her, Gimrizh honestly just can’t find it in her to get mad. If she were Vette, she’d want nothing to do with her mission either. They did just spend an unholy amount of time running up and down Balmorra. “If you want, you can stay out of it. I’ll go and hunt down Rathari and Dellocon by myself.”

“Really!?” Vette beams at her, “You’re the best! I owe you one!”

“Sure. Just buy me something pretty while you shop and relax and… I don’t know.” Gimrizh feels like she is somehow failing Vette by not knowing what she likes to do in her spare time. Oh well, she can fix that at a time when she doesn’t have an errant Sith lord to track and destroy. “Whatever you want to do.”

Quinn, on the other hand, looks affronted by Vette’s casual disregard of responsibility. “Then I shall accompany you, my lord,” he says pointedly.

In response, Vette huffs and angrily crosses her arms, “Fine. I’ll go get my lekku buffed, and you can deal with the blood and guts and the casinos… the constant smell of spice… the turf wars… everything the ‘detestable’ planet has to offer. I’m sure you’ll have fun.”

“It isn’t about fun,” Quinn retorts, “It’s about honor and serving the Empire. I suppose I shouldn’t expect you’d know anything about that.”

Vette looks mad enough to hiss like a wild nexu. “You think the Empire has honor? If that’s your baseline for the word you need to burn your damn dictionary. An imp wouldn’t know honorable if it dropped its pants in front of them.”

An angry red flush burns high on Quinn’s cheeks. “Your blatant, vulgar disrespect -”

“Oh is that what we’re talking about again - my ‘Twi’lek mouth’ - “

“Perhaps if you ceased insulting - “

“You’re working with slavers! In what fucking galaxy does that have honor - ”

Enough!” Gimrizh yells, making everything nearby rattle violently.

Silence echoes throughout the ship as both shut up. Quinn looks like he's been slapped and tries to step back and compose himself. Vette on the other hand is still angry enough to rip her lekku out and she turns her head away from main room so as not to be forced to look at either of them.

Gimrizh takes deep breaths. Getting worked up into a rage is absolutely not the right thing to do at the moment. One of them has to be sensible now and she supposes that person is her.

"You are both part of my crew," she says firmly, her anger a tightly controlled edge in her voice, "and on my ship. You will get along or you will get off. I will not have the two of you acting petty, am I understood?"

"Yes, my lord," Quinn says, resigned.

Vette sighs moodily and then bites out a reluctant, "Fine."

"Good," she unclenches her fists and takes a step away from the holo terminal now that it's no longer in danger of being destroyed, "Then let's get to work. Vette, while I and the captain are hunting Rathari and Dellocon, get the ship restocked please. We'll need more supplies. Make sure the spaceport staff refuel the ship as well. I don’t think we’re low, but better safe than sorry."

"Yeah sure," Vette agrees, waving her hand dismissively, "Whatever you say, boss lady."

Before Quinn can so much as even sneer at Vette's casual address, Gimrizh rounds on him, orders already on her lips, "Captain, we'll be touching down within the hour. It'd be best if you make sure the ship's ready to drop out of hyperspace and that we're ready to land. If you're to accompany me, then pack your things. You're certain to need a blaster."

He bows, and she can't see any of the irritation that she knows is there. He definitely has better control of his emotions than she does, "I will be ready as soon as I can."

"I'll join you on the bridge in a few minutes," Gimrizh says before dismissing both of them, Quinn to his quarters and Vette back to the engine room, presumably so that she can resume her avoidance with hydrospanners.

After doing a series of calming breathing exercises to get the last of her boiling anger out of her system, Gimrizh retreats to her room. She grabs an actual shirt that she can fight in and clips on her belt, her inactive lightsaber tapping against her thigh as she walks as a pleasant sort of reminder that she is armed and dangerous.

She heads to the peace and quiet of the bridge and reclines in the copilot's chair. The bright light of stars streak by the viewport faster than she can count them. They're still in hyperspace - moving faster than anything, hurtling through the galaxy. Normally such a sight would be relaxing, she had loved the view on the way to Balmorra.

But she's still irritated. She knows why Vette is so irritated by Quinn, or at least she suspects, but she isn’t… she’s not someone who can talk to Vette about it. She’s not good at that sort of thing and she doesn’t want to make the situation worse.

The bridge door slides open and Quinn steps in, “My lord -"

"Later," she says with a sigh, ignoring him in favor of staring out the viewport, "I am still angry at the both of you and it would be best to wait to discuss this until later."

"... Of course, my lord," he says after a moment's pause. She has to admire his professionalism, if nothing else.

"Help me land this ship," she orders, pointing vaguely at the pilot's chair to her left, "I can't fly by myself and Nar Shaddaa is coming up fast."

Silently, he sits down next to her and starts punching command codes into the terminal.

As they begin to pull the ship out of hyperspace, Gimrizh slowly takes all her irritation and frustration from the earlier argument, all her rage and anger from Baras's scheming, all of it, and then pushes it down and bottles it up. When there's a fight, when she needs to burn with fury, she'll uncork that bottle and let it all out.

~*~

Malavai decides, within the first hour of landing, that he doesn't like Nar Shaddaa. It's a thoroughly unpleasant sort of planet, and despite the similarities between it and Kaas City - namely the large populations, multi-sector skyscrapers, and bloated economies - the two cities couldn't be less alike. And he definitely prefers Kaas City.

Nar Shaddaa is an overcrowded haphazard mess of people of all sorts. There’s no order, no proper structure to the place, just everyone everywhere. There are both Imperial officers and Republic soldiers here, and although a Rattataki trooper practically snarls at him as he heads past, there isn’t any fighting. He’s more accustomed to having pubs attack him than pass him by. It isn’t too surprising though - they are in Hutt space now. Hutt space is by nature, neutral, and the only laws imposed are the ones that the Hutts decide are profitable to enforce.

As far as he can see, that means no laws at all. As they make their way through the Corellian sector, they pass groups of people surrounded by clouds of spice smoke, heavily armed gang members that glare at passersby as they load blasters, loud and hazy gambling houses that smell like a cantina. Prostitution is also rampant here, and after they walk past a flashing neon sign featuring a half naked Twi’lek for the dozenth time, Malavai has to admit that he has no idea why Vette would like such a horrid planet.

The contact, Halidrell Setsyn, runs her business out of a dingy office in Krayt territory. A small hole in the wall labeled ‘Setsyn Commodities’, the room had reeked of spice and sweat, an uncomfortable location for the short but important discussion they’d had before leaving to wait for her call regarding the Hutt meeting with Rathari’s apprentice.

Lord Gimrizh has sniffed out the one decent cafe on Nar Shaddaa with uncanny accuracy, and now they sit and wait in the small shop.

“Ah, I needed that,” Gimrizh sighs in contentment, putting her mug down on the table with a clink. “So what do we have on the Cartel representatives Rathari is baiting?”

After her icy silence earlier, Malavai latches onto that dangled thread of conversation, even if it is only regarding their mission. He double checks to make sure that the encryption program is still running and passes her his datapad. “Ybann and Qiltakka. Both are lower tier members of the Cartel.”

She smirks, but the motion is dry and without any real humor. “A meeting of lackeys all around then.”

Technically true. “The two are still important in their sectors, and hold controlling interests in the branches of the Cartel that operate in this quadrant of Nar Shaddaa. As well as the Black Sun and Exchange equivalents.”

Her golden eyes scan the screen. “Law enforcement?”

“That’s what it looks like, my lord.”

“Hm. The two of them are consummate gamblers? That can’t bode well for the Cartel’s banks, maybe we can use that against them?”

“From what I’ve heard, Hutts are particularly uncanny when it comes to sniffing out blackmail attempts. It’s one of many aspects that have made it difficult for the Empire to force them into any substantial agreements.” As much as Malavai might try to remain neutral and analytical on the subject, he’s not partial to Hutts on the best of days. A large number of the Empire’s resources have to be directed towards the Cartel at all times - resources that could be put to better use if the Cartel could either pick a side or cease their constant attempts to drain the galaxy dry.

Gimrizh frowns. “So we need to appease them. That’s annoying.”

“Or bribe them.” It’s hardly as though Hutts have morals.

“That’s a good idea, actually. This information you found lists a number of purchases for gundarks, nexus - all sorts of imported creatures,” she pauses ever so slightly, a flicker that Malavai only barely catches, “along with sub-species slaves, for pit fighting. In that case, we could offer to put them in touch with Halidrell Setsyn.”

It’s an interesting contrast to Vette’s earlier outburst at the thought of working with a slave trader. He can admit that the profession isn’t exactly… Well, he won’t say anything that contradicts the current Imperial doctrine. He makes a mental note of Gimrizh’s easy willingness to further assist Setsyn, as that proactive approach to Lord Baras’s orders seems like the sort of information that Malavai is supposed to be collecting.

The frown around Gimrizh’s eyes deepens. “Do we have any idea what Rathari’s offering them?”

“... Not as such.”

Unfortunately Rathari possesses enough of a brain to have kept any trace of previous negotiations with the Hutts off the holonet, and as a result Malavai had been unable to find even the slightest trace of what the Hutts might have been promised. He can guess - fewer restrictions to Imperial goods and services, perhaps, or even something as questionable as weapons shipments, but they have nothing solid to prepare against.

When he looks up from his datapad, Lord Gimrizh is staring at him.

“You really hate going into situations like this without knowing everything beforehand, don’t you?” she asks.

“Yes,” he replies quickly, and then backtracks when he realizes that he might have sounded a touch too vehement. “I can adapt to whatever mission we’re sent on, my lord, I assure you. I will not allow myself to become a liability.”

“Oh, no, I was just….” She shakes her head, smiling ever so slightly. “I have a feeling I’ll be quite glad to have you on my crew, captain.”

He blinks at her, and then forces himself to turn his gaze back to the datapad before he starts actually staring and offends her. “Well - I - I hope I don’t disappoint you.”

A short moment later Setsyn calls and their brief window of time to plan ends.

The message is brief, nothing more than an address and confirmation that Rathari has indeed sent his apprentice, Girik.

They take a speeder to the Duros sector. The Hutt safe house is far more luxurious than a bunker has any right to be, full of plush carpets and brilliant light fixtures that radiate the opulence of wealth that the Hutts maintain. The few tradesmen and gangsters that mill about the headquarters quickly file out of Lord Gimrizh's way as soon as she passes.

A guard tries to stop them from entering the central chamber, but Gimrizh flicks her hand and sends the guard tumbling into the nearest wall.

"Captain," she says, her hand pausing on the door. "If diplomacy fails us… If the Hutts try and take their pound of flesh over this insult, let me handle it and prioritize reporting back to Darth Baras.”

A sacrifice play? He bites down sharply on his lip without consciously realizing he’s doing it. No, something about Lord Gimrizh contrasts a little too harshly with that idea. He has no doubt that in this worst case scenario, she fully intends to survive to fight another day - her request is simply one for damage control.

“Yes, my lord.”

She waves her hand at the control panel and the heavy set of blast doors slide out of the way. The room is a massive, decadent lounge, with two Hutts sprawled out on chaises smoking purple-fumed spice pipes. A number of guards wielding small hand-blasters are stationed around the room, but they’re likely no more than glorified gangsters. Any real threat would be paid better and guarding someone higher up the Cartel’s chain of command.

Who both Malavai and Lord Gimrizh are looking at is the tall figure pacing in the center of the room, a red-skinned Zabrak with a lightsaber clipped to his belt. That must be Rathari’s apprentice, Girik.

Girik drops whatever pitch he was trying to sell to the Hutts as soon as Gimrizh steps into the room.

“So sorry to interrupt,” Gimrizh says lightly. She gives a polite nod towards the two Hutts, and says, in smooth if somewhat dusty Huttese, “May this meeting credit us both.”

What are you doing here?” The Hutt sitting to the left demands in Huttese, Ybann, if Malavai remembers his Hutts correctly. They do all look rather similar, and the blue tint of holo images can be misleading at times. “Who do you think you are?"

Girik smirks and answers the question despite it not being directed at him. “That’s Baras’s overstated apprentice. My master and I did warn you that he might try and sneak into our discussions.”

“I am not sneaking,” Gimrizh says calmly. Despite the confident posture she presents to the room, Malavai can see her hands curled into tight fists behind her back. “Honored Hutts, I did not come here to slither behind your backs like Girik suggests, I came simply because I believe I can present you a better, more profitable offer.”

The second Hutt, Qiltakka, chuckles at her speech. “How amusing! Tell us your proposal, little dark thing.”

It’s actually almost amusing how quickly Girik’s overconfident grin flips. “She’s no businessman like my master, good sirs, she is an enforcer. Baras sends her out to break people’s fingers for him. If Baras had meant to make an offer in good faith, he would have done so sooner and he would have done so through official channels, not by sending this brute to smash your door down.”

“Firstly, I would like to assure you that neither me nor my master has any quarrel with you,” she replies carefully.

Ybann points his pudgy finger accusingly at her. “And yet you just created a quarrel! This is a closed meeting! Your master should be the one to contact us, not his arrogant apprentice, and certainly not in this rude manner! You risk our wrath as well as this Sith’s.”

They have to be careful, Malavai reminds himself. The offer they can present to the Hutts was put together on short notice, it’s true, but that does not mean it’s worthless.

Gimrizh’s shoulders stiffen and she glances over at Girik. “Lord Baras is prepared to offer - ”

“I’ll shut her up for you!” Girik sneers, snatching his lightsaber into his hand.

A fight? Malavai hadn’t been anticipating a combat situation, not after Setsyn’s lecture on diplomacy and the simple fact that they are here to make a business deal. Before he really notices he’s doing it, his fingers are brushing against his blaster’s grip and he has to force himself to stand down. Lord Gimrizh had given clear orders on the subject and he would be useless in a fight between Sith anyway.

Ybann outright laughs at this declaration. “It would be entertaining! I suppose we’ll side with the victor then."

I put my money on Rathari’s man,” Qiltakka comments. “Twenty credits says he gets her in the stomach, fifty if he takes her head off.”

Girik laughs as he draws his lightsaber hilt. “Those are bad odds!”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. I suppose the only way for you to find out is to fight me,” she says acidly to Girik as she too raises her saber.

“I’ll kill you,” he replies, as if discussing his dinner plans. “And then these Hutts will have no choice but to bend to the will of my master.”

Malavai takes a couple steps back as both Sith activate their sabers simultaneously, dual beams of bright crimson.

For a moment, it’s clear that Gimrizh is waiting to slowly circle around Girik, probably so that she can attack his undefended side. Girik doesn’t give her that option. Malavai winces at the too-bright shower of sparks as Girik’s quick, rough jab collides with Gimrizh’s lightsaber at an odd angle.

In return, she leaps forward Girik and brings her blade down on his head in a powerful strike. He blocks it, throws her off him with sheer strength and then Malavai is hard pressed to keep track of the movement as the fight really begins.

It's interesting to watch, although stressful. The two combatants have different styles that clash both literally and analytically. Gimrizh still relies on a loose and evasive one handed form, whereas Girik favors stronger and more forceful blows that put her on the defensive. Unless she can outplay him, Malavai’s not certain she’d win against her opponent if it comes down to pure strength.

The two blades crash together with an impressive light show before they break apart again just as quickly. Girik’s attacks are violent and unrestrained as Gimrizh weaves her way around his lightsaber. It's not quite even dodging, not in the sense that Malavai thinks of the word, she's just always right where his lightsaber isn't, just fast enough to avoid injury. They're closely matched, although it's obvious Gimrizh's shoulder isn't healed and it's slowing her down. She's wielding her lightsaber in her left hand instead of her right and she doesn't move her shoulder more than necessary. It's the same handicap he observed in her before, only this time it’s forced by a half-healed injury.

Power cuts through the air. Girik’s lightsaber slashes a particularly strong blow that sends Gimrizh whirling out of the way. She goes low, her blade against her forearm to strike at his legs, but he just leaps over her and tries to plunge his blade into her back.

She flips her saber around to block the strike and then pivots on the spot to lash out again. They exchange a brief flurry of blows in which neither of them moves more than an inch, just their sabers flashing and colliding. The sheer intensity of it takes Malavai’s breath away.

Using what can only be the force, Girik sends an ornate coat stand flying towards Gimrizh. She disengages from her fight with him, jumping back and using her saber to cut the stand in two before it can knock her down. The halves skid to a stop behind her and she slides into a lower stance, her lightsaber held back and at the ready.

“You’re not half bad,” Girik comments with an infuriating smirk.

Gimrizh just twirls her blade around. “I’m ever so glad to provide you with such excellent entertainment. Should I get you a seat next to the Hutts so that you can watch? Or would you rather keep fighting?”

“Arrogant,” he sneers. “It’ll be fun to put you in your place.”

Kill it already,” impatiently demands Qiltakka.

Girik rushes her with a hard overhand blow that slices through every layer of carpet on the floor as Gimrizh spins out of the way. In retaliation, she opens a long gash across his torso with a quick tight spin. He hisses at her like a wild nexu.

He unleashes a flurry of wide powerful strikes, trying to slice and cut at Gimrizh. But it’s less focused and more unpredictable. Is he losing control of the fight? She manages to keep him at an arm's length with what looks like greater ease than before. Every swing of his saber is met by either a light parry as she deflects the hit, or nothing at all as she dodges. Despite the anger that Malavai guesses she’s holding in, she’s still possessed of remarkable control as she skillfully weaves around her opponent’s lightsaber.

Then Girik manages to get a hit in.

His lightsaber drags a long gash under her arm as she moves out of his way just a second too late. The blade burns all the way through her light armour to sear her flesh. Gimrizh falls back and staggers, pressing a palm to her side to try and stop the pain.

Apparently that one moment of distraction is all it takes. Girik lowers his lightsaber and raises his hand. His fingers clench tightly around open air.

A thin wheezing breath is the only sound that makes its way out of Gimrizh’s lips and her eyes go wide as she chokes. Malavai draws his blaster - does she really expect him to stand aside as his commanding officer dies?

She takes one last strained breath of air and then starts to breathe normally again. He can’t tell how, but she appears to have shaken it off. And she looks furious.

In a mirror of Girik’s move earlier, she throws out her hand and starts strangling him. Girik claws at his throat like he can’t believe it’s even happening to him, even as blood rushes to his face and his jaw gapes open without drawing breath.

“Arrogant,” she says coldly, spitting his own words back at him.

She drags him through the air till his feet are kicking a foot above the floor. And then she throws him against the wall. Before he can recover she tosses him to the side again and then tugs him up to hang in midair.

With one last movement of her hand, she sends him crashing into the floor.

She strides over to where he lies limply on the ground and uses the force to pull his head up and look him in the eyes.

"Are you having fun?" she demands in a tone colder than Hoth.

Girik spits out a mouthful of blood. "My master will take you down - you and Baras both."

She drops her hold on him and lets him fall to his knees without dignity. "I doubt it," she turns smartly to the Hutts and bows, short, formal, but not actually with real deference. “Thank you for your patience. May we begin to discuss business now that this has been taken care of?”

Ybann the Hutt grumbles but nods obligingly. "As you say, dark thing. A deal is a deal, and we’ll hear Baras out."

"We will refuse Rathari's terms," agrees Qiltakka, counting out credit chips with a pout.

She nods politely to the two of them. "Good to hear. I'll take out the trash for you," she adds with a glance at Girik.

Girik gapes at her in disbelief, his wide eyes red in the glow of her lightsaber.

"No!" He cries, "This isn't possible! I'll die by my hand before I die by yours!”

And then he presses the hilt of his lightsaber to his chest and turns it on. In a burst of blood and charred flesh, the glowing blade erupts from his back. Frothy red bubbles on his lips and then he falls to the ground.

Malavai covers his nose and mouth to avoid breathing in the abhorrent smell of Girik’s corpse. He certainly hadn’t been expecting that.

He steps forward to congratulate his lord on her victory and then stops dead in his tracks.

All apparent anger has fled from her expression. Beneath the thick black ink her face is white and bloodless as she stares uncomprehendingly at Girik's corpse. She stumbles backwards and lets her lightsaber flicker out.

"My lord," Malavai asks, "Are you alright?"

Her lips hang open for a moment before she can come up with words, "Why did he do that? There wasn't a reason. He didn't know me, I could have spared him, there wasn't- why-" she takes a deep breath and steps back, clipping her lightsaber back to her belt, "It's nothing- I'm fine."

That was hardly fine, but Malavai's not going to press the point. "As you say, my lord."

Is there anything else?”  Ybann asks, peering at Gimrizh.

“No, please excuse the interruption.”

She gives a final nod to the Hutts and then strides out of the headquarters as though chased out.

Once they get far enough away from the Hutt safehouse, Malavai breaks the silence she’s imposing.

“Sit down please, my lord.” He’s already reaching for his med kit. There’s not a lot he can do in the field for her, but he can take a preliminary look now to stave off the worst of the injury and then patch up the rest back on the ship. “You shouldn’t be walking without at least a kolto patch.”

She obligingly sits down on a nearby supply crate, grimacing and stumbling as she does so. “It didn’t hurt nearly this bad a minute ago.”

The fabric of her shirt is basically a lost cause, and Malavai pushes it to the side anyway to avoid infection. Applying a basic kolto patch in the field isn’t too difficult. It’s rather like covering the wound in duratape, only the tape is the transparent blue of kolto-mesh.

With minimal movement, Gimrizh fishes out her communicator.

“Lord Korribanil?” Setsyn’s voice comes through loud and clear, although the holo image has been disabled. Malavai can’t blame Gimrizh for that. It’s more than understandable that she wouldn’t want anyone else to see her injured.

“The Hutts have been taken care of,” Gimrizh informs her. “I’m actually hoping that you could send a message to one of Lord Baras’s aides regarding the matter. Both Hutts in question are fond of live-imports, and I was thinking that your business in that market could be invaluable. We do need the Hutts to actually like us after all.”

“Hm. Can’t say I’ve given the idea much thought before now, but I suppose I can do direct business with those two Hutts. Is that all?”

“I’ve nothing further to report. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear that I can be diplomatic when necessary.”

“Alright. I’ll send along further information when I get it.”

After that, Malavai and Lord Gimrizh head back to the ship to wait.

The ship - which really does need a name -  is quiet at least. Nar Shaddaa is the planet that never sleeps and Vette has taken advantage of the constant activity to be out and about for the past thirteen hours, according to the ship’s cams that report her departure.

Another advantage to being back aboard the ship is that Malavai can take a closer look at Gimrizh’s injury and fix it up. She just sits quietly on the edge of the medical bed as he removes the quick kolto-mesh and patches up her wounds for the second time. Now there’s a long gash on her side in addition to the still healing damage on her shoulder.

“We should stock up on medical supplies, my lord,” Malavai comments as he hands her the kolto wraps, “If you keep getting injured at this rate, we’ll run out rather quickly.”

She laughs lightly and then winces as the movement tugs on her burns, “I’m not a big fan of this trend either. I just hope that as I gain experience beyond just these two fights with force users, I’ll stop getting thrashed all the damn time. At least fighting acolytes meant vibroblades, not lightsaber.”

"Acolytes from the Sith Academy on Korriban, my lord? I thought that fighting between acolytes is not permitted on Korriban."

"Oh, you're right," she readily agrees, and then elaborates with only the slightest of reluctant pauses, "Academy acolytes can't kill each other in the main Academy. But a number of the surrounding tombs are fair game so long as you don’t get caught."

“May I ask a personal question?"

She pauses, as though confused that he’s asking for permission at all. “Go ahead.”

For a moment, Malavai turns the question over in his head, trying to make sure that it doesn’t come across as rude or any more intrusive than necessary. “I know you’ve mentioned studying in one of the Sith Acclimation and Preliminary Education Institutes - “

“Stars, I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say the full name aloud. Please, just call them Institutes.”

“Very well. I know you studied at one of the Institutes before, but for how long?”

A thoughtful frown tugs at the corner of her mouth. “I’m not sure. As long as I can remember? My official file says I was brought in when I was two years old, but I think they have younger children stay in a nursery somewhere for a while before joining the rest of the Institute.”

The Sith are remarkably secretive about how they train potential Sith and what occurs on their planet. If Lord Gimrizh has no issues with sharing their more open secrets, it's probably his best chance to ever find out what the Sith Order is like. “Does that transfer directly into the Sith Academy?”

“Yes. I studied at the Academy for year before apprenticing to Lord Baras,” she tells him, “You're sent to the Academy for upper-level education, and there are entrance examinations and numerous rounds of testing before that.

Only a year? That seems like such a short time. Although if it follows what amounts to a lifetime of constant study, Malavai can see the practicality of a fast turnover rate. Still. He can’t recall seeing or hearing of Sith younger than Gimrizh serving in the field - except for the few memorable urban-legends that are the exceptions to prove the rule. All Imperial citizens begin their military service at age eighteen, but the impression he’d had is that there is far more training and study, as well as simple experience, required to become Sith.

"There’s no need to be so surprised," she says lightly, snapping him out of his thoughts. "I might have been dragged through the Academy faster than usual, but, I enjoyed my time there. That's where I met Vette."

Well if she's ready to discuss the argument from earlier then Malavai will comply. He isn't exactly proud of himself for getting into such a pointless squabble with the Twi'lek and it'll be good to put it behind him. "About that, my lord. I must apologize for my behavior earlier. It was unprofessional of me and it won't happen again."

"It's forgiven," she says instantly, all her earlier irritation apparently burned off. "If I punished people for their anger I would be the galaxy's greatest hypocrite. Similarly, I must apologize for yelling at you and Vette earlier."

That's absurd, she was right to yell at them earlier. And besides, she's the commanding officer on board. It's her prerogative. "There's no need to apologize, my lord."

She bats his hands away as he finishes wrapping her most recent injury. "I'm fine now," she says, tugging her ruined shirt back over her head to partially cover up the white bandages.

"Please try not to reopen it." he says pointlessly. So far, his guess is that she'll at the very least strain it.

"I'll endeavor to," she replies with a tiny smile. "About earlier... while I don't have a problem with you speaking freely - this isn't a standard ship - you weren't voicing a concern or protesting anything that concerns our work. You were just being rude. I’ll speak with Vette about this as well, but I don’t have the temperment or time to mediate between the two of you."

"I-" Malavai takes a deep breath and reminds himself that she is correct, and that as annoying as Vette might be, arguing with her is wasting time that could be spent working, "I understand, my lord."

Gimrizh nods, "Good. Why does Vette irritate you?"

"She has no respect for you, my lord," he says honestly. "That sort of rudeness shouldn’t be tolerable."

A Sith deserves respect. That should be a given.

"Vette doesn't care about titles," she replies. "Don’t worry about what Vette calls me, honestly, I’m not insulted. For that matter, you really don't have to call me 'lord' either. I’m not actually a lord, I’m just an apprentice, and a very junior one at that."

"That," he says sharply, "Would be very unprofessional of me, my lord. You are my commanding officer and it wouldn’t do to show you disrespect.”

She hums thoughtfully and gives him a look, "You're speaking from experience. That's why you're so formal and that's why Vette bothers you so much. You disobeyed a superior, didn't you?" And she says it so confidently and so certainly that it shocks Malavai. It occurs to him for the first time that perhaps she's been studying him just as much as he's been studying her.

“Ah.” Deep anger curls in his stomach, mixed with just enough shame to make the rage all the worse. This is quickly becoming a conversation he wants to avoid at all costs. “Lord Baras has my record on file, if you wish to view it. Events before I began working for him are classified.”

“Of course,” she says softly, standing up and rubbing a hand tenderly over the bandages littering her torso. “I won’t pry then.”

On auto-pilot, Malavai adds one last bit of medical advice before she leaves. “If you get any sleep before Setsyn contacts us with further information, please try not to sleep on your injured side.”

“You should try and sleep as well,” she replies, and he thinks he can see the smile in the sentence before she steps into her private quarters across the way.

~*~

Vette strolls through the glowing streets of Nar Shaddaa’s Promenade with only a slight glower in her step. She loves this planet, she really does. Loves it with every breath she takes of it’s nasty air and every whiff of spice. Loves the crazy fake-gold decals on vendor stalls and the trashy looking plant holos. She remembers, back when she lived here, that there were dozens of rumors about Hutts using decorative holos to cover up dead bodies in public. Perhaps the Hutts are the only thing she dislikes about this planet.

It’s been a long time since she’s been here and every step she takes feels like a dozen old memories that have grown dusty from disuse. She can remember her very first steps on this planet, the very first time she entered the Mezenti spaceport with wide eyes and a handful of credits in her pockets. At first, she had been scared of this planet, this never ending city that just keeps on being loud and bright and booming without reprieve. She had been just a young teenager the first time and all alone. Nok Drayen had vanished, his crew scattered, and Risha disappeared like a whisper in the wind. Vette had been abandoned on Hutta after Drayen left. She’d pawned a run down droid off to a fencer to get enough credits for a shuttle ride to the smuggler’s moon.

And she’s never regretted it. Not during all the shit that happened to her on this planet, and there’s a lot of shit that can happen to a young Twi’lek girl in a place full of lawbreakers. But one of the good things that she found about the racism that plagues the galaxy is that it’s very easy for Twi’leks to find each other. That’s where almost all the good memories come from. Not those first few months of a being a scared little girl abandoned on the smuggler’s moon after years of working under the galaxy’s most infamous pirate.

No, the good memories come from working with her Twi’lek gang. Flash, Plasmajack, Taunt, and her. The four of them against anyone who wanted to destroy Ryloth’s history. She’d felt like she was working for a cause, for something bigger than herself. Those had been good times. And then she’d had to go and screw it up. Taking jobs as an assassin, going after bigger and bigger targets. And then she’d hit Korriban, thinking that nothing could ever bring her down.

She brings her hand up to brush against the back of her slave collar. Being born a slave is a shit hand in life, but going back to that place after having been free for so long felt worse than she remembered. Like the galaxy is laughing at her for daring to think that she could be more than just another alien slave. Working for Gimrizh isn’t a bad place, no, but she’s still a slave and she’s still stuck with this force-damned collar to constantly remind her that she’s right back where she started.

If only she could take this stupid thing off. But it’s programed to shock her if she tries it herself and Gimrizh holds the keys to her release. She hasn’t asked the Sith to take it off yet. In truth, she has no idea what Gimrizh would say. Gimrizh doesn’t act like most Imperials or like most Sith, but she still is one of them and probably shares their dumb views.

Or at least some of them. It’s figuring out which that’s the problem.

Asking for the collar off is a gamble. Before they left Balmorra, Vette was thinking about risking it though. Maybe be really nice for a week and then broach the conversation over a glass of fancy liquor and then bye-bye shock collar.

But then she let that stuffy officer and his racist asshattery on board, and now Vette has to wonder if the collar on her neck remains there on purpose. That irritates her more than the man himself - she had thought she and Gimrizh were together on this. Outsiders, sure, but outsiders together, with shared experiences and opinions.

She sighs and turns to look at the nearest techie's stall. Her blasters could use a bit of loving. Such frequent use really wears down on the power coils, and she knows that with a few specific, if expensive, tools she could not only fix them but increase the punch they can pack. A few tweaks to the battery would also increase the charge rate, and that’s nice. Burning through power packs in the middle of a job is always a pain in the ass.

The meandering path she takes leads her to buying a few odds and ends, nothing she really needs but just things she’d like. A cute potted cactus that’d look great in her room - and would be one of the few plants that’d have a decent time in space. Some Hutt snacks that she remembers liking. A glitter encrusted lekkan’ar that clashes magnificently with her skin tone.

And then a familiar cantina sign catches her eye. Well, apparently her day is picking up.

She happily strides into the cantina and snags a thick scarf off the shoulders of a passed-out drunk Weequay to wrap around her neck before she takes a seat at the bar. If she’s around strangers, the stupid collar is less of a big deal, but in front of people she used to know…

It’s different. She remembers this place from back during her gang days, and it’s almost surprising that it’s still standing. Their little Twi’lek gang used to come here after a particularly successful job. Good cantina for parties, and damn good Corellian whiskey too. Not to mention the former owner’s smuggling operation has always put him heavily in her good books.

It hasn’t changed a bit. Same paint job, same crappy stools, same dejarik table in the back. Hells is that the same owner?

“Vette?” The Togruta guy behind the bar gapes at her and then grins, “Damn, what happened to you? I haven’t seen you in almost a year! One day you were here and then you just up and vanished!”

She easily returns his grin, “Well if it ain’t Darun the tiny Togruta!”

“Ah hells I forgot you used to call me that,” he grumbles, “I’m not that short. And I’ve got a good couple decades of age on you.”

“Please, you’re shorter than me when I was fourteen,” she jokes.

He groans comically, “Got me there, kid.” He pours her a glass of her favorite whiskey without having to be asked - he knows her tastes well. “So tell me, what’ve you been up to? Left Nar Shaddaa in a real hurry almost a year ago and no one’s heard a peep from you since. Now, boom, you’re back. Must be quite the story you got.”

She takes a heavy swig of her drink to avoid answering right away. And damn, it is just as good as she remembers. Heavy and strong, with a nice kick and good flavor. “Yup, it’s been a long haul. You’ll never believe what happened to me, Darun.”

“Well I can’t believe what I ain’t hearing,” he says, refilling her glass.

“Okay so,” she begins, “About a year ago I heard this rumor about a Ryloth artifact on Korriban, in some tomb. Spent some time digging into it, which is about when I left Nar Shaddaa. I met a contact on Hutta who said he had info about this ‘artifact’. Turned out, he was lying through her teeth and there’s nothing from Ryloth on Korriban, go figure.”

“Ah, that’s shit luck.”

“Dumb of me, I know, why the hells would Ryloth treasures be on a Sith pureblood planet?”

He shakes his head knowingly. “Can’t trust sources sometimes. Happens to the best of us, kid.”

With another gulp of whiskey, she shrugs. “Eh. It actually kind of worked out? Or, it’s in the process of being worked out. So when I was casing this tomb on Korriban, I found a secret entrance inside that not even the Sith knew about. Well, there’s no Ryloth treasures locked up there, but there are plenty of other treasures free for the stealing. So I figured… why not check it out and see what I can scoop up while I’m here.”

“Reasonable,” he agrees, “Why pass up a free score like that? What’s Korriban like?”

She gives an iffy wave of her hand, “Cold, dry, boring. Way too many Sith. As expected, really. But yeah, that was my thinking. Why not go for the big payload while I was there, right?”

“I’d guess things got complicated, but you’re still alive so...” Darun queries.

“Complicated ain’t the half of it my friend,” she tells him, “I got caught breaking into the tomb. Got thrown into a jail cell in the Sith Academy and spent kriffing months down there with a trigger happy jailer. Not fun. At all. Trust me.”

He slides her a new glass, knowing that the best way to get information out of a mouth is if that mouth has been drinking heavily, “Going by the fact that you’re sitting pretty in my bar, you got out. Did you break out in a daring escape? Everyone talks about Sith like they’re damn spooks - I figured that their Academy would be damn near inescapable.”

“It wasn’t a break out,” she admits, thinking back to that time when Gimrizh had stalked into her cell and Vette had been so certain that ‘this is it, this damn Sith’s gonna be the end of me’. And then, she had kept on living and started thinking of ‘that damn Sith’ as someone who could almost be a friend. “A Sith let me go.”

Darun gapes at her. “You’re shitting me. Sith don’t let people go. Sith go through people.”

She gestures to herself. “And yet here I am. Sith let me out. I helped her break into that tomb that got my fool ass caught in the first place and… well… I’ve been with her ever since. Had to board a fucking Republic warship during a space battle. Saw Drumond Kaas - left Drumond Kaas, which was unexpected. Headed to that warzone of a planet Balmorra. We’ve even got our own starship now, a sweet Interceptor that flies like magic with a good pilot at the helm.”

“Wow,” he whistles appreciatively.

“I know.”

“Damn.”

“Right?”

“I’d say you’re lying through your teeth if it weren’t too fucking crazy,” Darun agrees.

She nods her head slowly. “Can’t make this shit up.”

"How'd you make your way back here?" he asks, waving at the entirety of his cantina. "Gave your Sith the old slip?"

Vette laughs and to her surprise it doesn't ring as true as she thought. "Nah. She's off with some asshole officer we picked up on Balmorra. Doing super top secret Sith stuff. I got vacation time, was wandering around the Promenade looking for power converters, and then saw that your place is still up and running."

"Sith give vacation time?" Darun raises an eyebrow curiously.

This question is one she's slightly less comfortable answering. "This Sith does," she says blandly.

"Damn," he says again. Then everything she’s said catches up with him and a familiar twinkle enters his eye. "Did you say you've got an Interceptor?"

Ah, ships. Darun's one weakness. Besides credits of course, but that's everyone's weakness. "Oh yeah," she says with a grin. "Brand new, one of the Imperial Fury models. Got a great interior, way more space than the older designs and a better layout. It's hyperdrive is a real nice bit of tech - and oh the sub-light engines are a thing of pure beauty. I swooned when I saw them."

He chuckles. "Have you started messing with 'em yet?"

"Noooo," she whines, "I want to but they're so perfect. There's no improvements I can make that wouldn't mess the whole thing up. Whoever designed them is a damn miracle worker and should be protected as a galactic treasure."

"That good then?" He says, holding in a burst of laughter, "I know how you are with shiny tech. How's the thing handle?"

She drains her glass in one sip, "Like a dream. And not a weird 'falling and can't wake up' dream. More like a dream where you’re rolling on Nabooian silk sheets in a pile of credits. That kind of dream. And I get to fly her. Turns out, Sith's not a great pilot so I got to fly our baby to Balmorra. If we ever get a new ship I'll have a memorial for this one."

"Sounds drop dead gorgeous."

"She's fucking fabulous."

"Do I get to see her?"

Vette's wise to that old trick. "And run off with her, leaving me standing in the spaceport without a ship? I know you too well, Darun. Good try but no luck."

He laughs again, grabbing her glass before she can finish all the whiskey in the cantina. "Can't blame an old man for trying. Hey, are you gonna see that gang of yours before you and that ship elope?"

She sits up straight as a nail. "You've been keeping in touch with my gang? You know where they are?"

"Sure do," he tells her, "They're still here, still drop in every so often to say hi to me and my liquor, and help out with my side work if I’m being watched by the Hutts. Still robbing people blind - but that's your way I suppose."

"Where are they now?" She asks. If they're still here on Nar Shaddaa - it’s been so long. There’s a dozen jokes she wants to tell Taunt, and she owes Plasmajack a drinking contest, and she misses the smell of Flash’s disgusting cigarras. Things won't be the same as they were but there's no harm in pretending for a while. It'd be nice to act like her whole life hasn't turned upside down again.

Darun shrugs. "Off on their usual bouts of daring-do through the galaxy. I think they headed to Coruscant, last I heard. They should be back in two or three weeks. How long you staying here?"

Not that long. They might spend a few more days hunting down this spy, but unless anything goes seriously wrong, that fucked up Baras will send Gimrizh off to another section of the galaxy as soon as they're done. There's no chance they'll still be here in two weeks. "No way in hells I'll be here that long," she says glumly.

"That's a real shame," Darun laments, "But you know, if you want, you don't gotta stay with that Sith. I got space, I could put you up for a couple weeks till your gang gets back, and force knows I know you well enough. You'd be leaving that sexy ship behind, but you'd be home free."

Could she even do that? She's got a decent gig with Gimrizh but... She misses her old gang. They'd been through a lot together and and those had been some damn good times. Once she got caught on Korriban she'd figured that she'd never see them again. To go back to her old line of work, stealing back her cultural treasures, it'd be a gift.

But she's still hesitant and she's not really sure why. It should be an easy snap decision for her and instead it isn't. She's a collared slave now and owned by Gimrizh, even if it doesn't always feel that way, and being a slave makes it hard for her to just run off. But no, that's not really the reason why she's unsure either.

She likes it with Gimrizh. While hectic and downright insane, the work they do has a thrill that can't be found anywhere else. She likes their ship and how they haven't hit the same planet twice. And she likes Gimrizh herself. The girl's barely a year or so older than Vette but she's mature. Reasonable. Clever. Even funny. Despite being a Sith and deadlier than a rabid gundark, she can actually be kind. And Vette sees someone who needs people, someone who's been alone for a long time and can't remember what company is like. Someone who hates themself so much it's hard to separate the self loathing from the real person. She sees herself, before Nok Drayen came and whisked her away into the stars. She almost pities Gimrizh because the Sith hasn't yet figured out what Vette learned years ago.

Oh, there are problems, sure. The captain isn’t going anywhere soon either and she’d like to give him a firm kick around the head to shake out all that Imperial doctrine. Gimrizh has got her own suitcase full of issues that Vette's not going to touch. And then there’s the collar.

It’s just…

Vette's not sure if she wants to get off the train before she sees where it's headed. Even though Gimrizh has the ambition of a snail, Vette can't imagine her fading into obscurity without having first made a big splash in the galaxy.

"I don't know," she says at last, "I'll think about it, see how things turn out. Either way, I'll let you know before I skip town."

He smiles at her, "You're a good kid, Vette. Deserve a lot more than what the galaxy threw at you."

"Aww, so sweet. Are my drinks on the house then?" she teases.

He just snorts in amusement. "No way."

“Spoilsport.”

The last patrons in the bar, a couple of Cathars who can’t be old enough to be legal yet, finally get up and stumble out. Just the juke in the corner is playing now, with no more background chatter. And no more witnesses. Darun presses a button - the front door locks.

He leans across the countertop and Vette instantly knows what he’s going to ask. A jolt of pure thrill rushes through her. “If you’re here tonight, I could use a second pair of hands.”

Oh he hasn’t changed. Not at all. Vette loves it. She’s practically bouncing in her seat. This is the sort of thing that would piss off the captain to no end, and she’s sure Gimrizh wouldn’t be exactly happy with her either, and right now those two things just make her feel better about doing this.

“Sign me up,” she chirps. “How many?”

“Just the one. Got to get to a Hutt computer terminal and deliver a data package.” Darun bites his lip. “I don’t think it will be particularly dangerous, but I’m being watched. Caught some Cartel goons following me home last week. Nothing I can’t handle.”

Vette enthusiastically shakes his hand. “I’ll do it. Usual place, usual time?”

“It’s good to have you back.”

~*~

The Republic.

They’re supposed to help the Republic.

There’s one Imperial soldier left standing by the time Malavai and Gimrizh arrive on the scene. Just the one, waiting while a datapad sends out a series of distress signal codes requesting backup. A wall of debris and duracrete slabs hides what must be the last of the Republic contingent. Flickering and partially broken light fixtures are all that illuminate this blasted up corridor, making the tiny space feel even more cramped.

“You’re Darth Baras’s - “ The man’s a sergeant, one of the army tabs on his collar torn off and a dark red smear across his forehead. His hands are shaking as he pulls his blaster. “I’m supposed to - you’re not allowed to be here - “

Gimrizh slowly holds out her open hands. “We’re here to help. Please, just put the blaster down and we can help you.”

That’s a head wound if Malavai’s ever seen one, and the bleeding is unlikely to slow down without medical attention. “I’m a medical officer,” he tells the sergeant. “That injury could kill you if you don’t get to a medbay in short order.”

“No - “ Gimrizh has taken another step forward and the sergeant shoves his blaster forward again. “Stay back! I can’t - I can’t let you pass!”

His finger curls around the trigger.

Malavai’s eyes widen and he drops his hand from his medkit to his blaster, about to yell a warning to Lord Gimrizh before she gets shot in the face by one of their own.

Instead, she moves first. She flashes into reach of the sergeant, grabs the barrel of his blaster with her bare hands and yanks it towards the ground. The shot goes off, the bolt leaving a smoking hole in the ground - and then she spins around to plant her elbow firmly into the sergeant’s temple.

It takes perhaps a single second. She catches the unconscious sergeant before he hits the ground.

“Shit - I didn’t think about his head wound when I did that. Captain, can you…?”

Malavai immediately reaches for a localized stasis field, which is perhaps the only thing that can slow down a shock to the head like that fast enough for the sargeant to maintain his mental faculties at the end of the day.

A drop of blood hits the floor. When he looks, he sees Gimrizh is biting down on her lip hard enough to cut it open. “Shit,” she says again. “I - that was stupid of me. I just acted, I didn’t think. Fuck.”

“You have good instincts,” Malavai comments. Her strike was far more precise than he’d thought, it knocked the sergeant out without further exacerbating the man’s injury. “He’ll be fine. That was the most perfectly placed hit I’ve ever seen.”

Gimrizh pauses for a long moment while he packs a fast acting kolto wrap around the sergeants head before attaching the stasis field. He’s not sure how long it takes her to reply with his mind so firmly on his work.

“Thank you,” she says at last. “We should - if he’s stable, we should go knock on the Republic’s door.”

After a short scan to check that the sergeant is indeed stable, he gets to his feet, draws his blaster, and follows Gimrizh down the hallway.

A demolition charge is still laid along the ground, but at least that’s apparently easy for Gimrizh to disable using the force. Past explosives have caved the hallway in, resulting in an unsteady slope downwards, rubble slipping under Malavai’s boots as they scramble down towards the bunker at the end of the hall.

Gimrizh gestures for him to get behind her. She reaches both hands out towards the duracrete rubble wall. Malavai can’t help but lean forward just the slightest bit to more closely watch her application of the force. The motion is slow at first, a shaky tugging to the sides, the debris trembling and just barely dragging itself away. And then suddenly the pieces go flying past them, kicking up dust and smashing along the hallway.

In the bunker, three badly beaten Republic soldiers huddle against the wall, clutching drained power mags and dirt-smeared blasters.

“Bad day?” Gimrizh asks the group, a sneer hovering at the corners of her lips.

The Republic Commander scrambles to his feet to stand protectively in front of his two companions. His gaze darts between Gimrizh, Malavai, and then to the lightsaber on Gimrizh’s belt. “I’m Commander Naughlen,” he says at last. “My men and I surrender. We can’t defeat Lord Rathari’s apprentice.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your reputation in combat proceeds you, Lord Girik. We know we can’t survive a fight against you.”

Ire rises within Malavai at that comment. Gimrizh might be Zabrak like Girik was, but she works for Lord Baras and that puts her in a much more selective class than anyone Rathari could have picked out.

Gimrizh simply raises an eyebrow, which is more of a tugging on her tattoos than anything else. “You’ve got the wrong Zabrak. I encountered Girik earlier yesterday, and I assure you he did not leave that encounter alive. The master I serve is Darth Baras, not Rathari.”

“...Baras?”

“That’s right.” She points to the large supply crate their huddled around. “Is that the weapons shipment Rathari wanted?”

The soldiers glance nervously at each other, with Naughlen shuffling to try and stand in front of the crate.

“Excellent. I’ll be taking that off your hands then.” With a wave of her hand, the supply crate is lifted off the ground and towards them, nearly knocking over Naughlen in the process. It lands beside Malavai with the thud-rattle of metal clanging against itself. “Rathari will not be alive much longer to make use of it regardless.”

Malavai’s knuckles tighten around his blaster grip. Rathari’s goons or not, Imperial soldiers have died, and these men are still Republic and still their enemies. He’d been expecting Lord Gimrizh to instigate a swift execution. Instead, these Republic soldiers are still standing. Her hand is hovering over her unlit lightsaber. Will she draw? Why hasn’t she drawn already? What possible reason could there be for letting these men still live?

When she doesn’t move, Naughlen slowly steps forward. “Sith? Please - we won’t win a fight against you and we know it. We’ve surrendered.”

“You’re begging for your lives?” Gimrizh asks carefully. Whatever thoughts are running through her head are utterly invisible to Malavai. “I can’t say I expected better from the Republic.”

“We -” Naughlen exchanges glances with his men. He runs his tongue over his chapped lips nervously. “We would owe you a favor.”

She frowns thoughtfully.

“My lord,” Malavai whispers urgently. “They’re Republic soldiers.”

A hesitant pinch in her forehead. Her teeth tug at her lower lip. “Rathari would never see them coming.”

If they’re that desperate for a surprise attack, Malavai would be happy to come up with an exhaustive list of all other options that Rathari wouldn’t see coming. Using Republic soldiers would be last on that particular list. It might be convenient, but there’s nothing to guarantee that these soldiers would actually follow through on such a bargain. The Republic can hardly be trusted to keep its word, after all.

And yet. Lord Gimrizh is still his commanding officer. He can’t just argue with her, especially not in front of krething Republic soldiers.

Raising her voice enough for the soldiers to hear her, Gimrizh addresses Naughlen’s proposal. “You will owe me a favor. You are not to make contact with any other Republic forces until I contact you and you fulfill your end of our bargain. If your superiors attempt to contact you, you will inform them that you were delayed but do not need reinforcements.” She uses the force to yank the man’s wrist communicator into her hand and copies the frequency before tossing it back to him. “Expect a call sooner rather than later.”

Naughlen salutes. “We’re good for our word. I promise. And the weapons?”

Gimrizh pauses before tightening her hand into a fist. With an ear-grating crunch, the weapons grate is crushed into an unrecognisably warped hunk of metal. “Taken care of.”

They leave the same way they came, with Gimrizh using the force to carefully levitate the injured Imperial soldier out of the halls until they get somewhere safe enough to comm for a med-shuttle.

Toxic smelling rainwater trickles down from the upper levels as they wait in a slightly more neutral area.

“You disprove.” Gimrizh does not pose it as a question.

“I am hardly about to contradict your orders, my lord. If that’s the decision you have made, then I will assume you have your reasons and I shall not question you.”

“I told you earlier that I don’t mind it if you have something to say. I’m not going to be angry if you have a problem with what I’m doing - or even if you tell me so directly to my face. In fact, I’d prefer it if you did so.”

A stark contrast from Lord Baras. Not that one way of command is better than the other, in Malavai’s opinion. He simply notes the difference - Lord Baras would be interested in that information - and moves on. “Thank you for saying so, my lord, however I would never do so in front of others. Especially not in front of the Republic.”

However she might prefer to command is one thing. Openly challenging her in front of the enemy is another.

She nods slowly. “Of course.”

The medical transport arrives just as the rain begins to stop.

~*~

The darkness of Nar Shaddaa is never true darkness. Too many lights from luxury yachts, street lamps that flicker through the massive metal tunnels, and broken holo-trees that no one cares enough about to turn off at night. Not to mention that the night hours see an increase in Hutt security patrols. Those don’t stop crime , but they do stop any action that the Cartel doesn’t care for.

Which in this instance, is Vette’s work.

She’s waiting by a sewage tunnel at true darkness. The hour when the Cartel patrols are switched up in this part of town. That’s the only real cover this planet has. One hand is resting loosely on her blaster, the other is tapping a jaunty rhythm out against the tunnel’s metal walls, a code for her contact to follow.

The wait comes to an end after a few more minutes of this. A grime-encrusted Weequay steps silently out of the tunnel and dusts himself off next to Vette.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says in a voice with the roughness of a past deathstick addiction. “Couple of bounty hunters hanging around Third Star’s place. Recognized one of ‘em from Toydaria. Didn’t want to take any chances.”

Third Star - that’s Darun. His bar is the third stop from the mines of Kessel. Stop one is some spaceport in the Kessel sector that, for safety reasons, Vette doesn’t know the name or location of. Stop two is a packing warehouse on Toydaria. That’s where her Weequay compatriot came from.

“Best get going then, huh?” she replies.

He nods grimly and follows behind as she leads.

There are a number of Cartel computer terminals located throughout Nar Shaddaa, all of them guarded and secured.

Vette’s located one a short creeping walk from their rendezvous point. It should only have the two guards during this time of the night - two quick stun bolts - and the rest of the security system is electronic. She’s got enough experience slicing Hutt systems to know that she can handle that end just fine.

When they get close enough, she hands her spare blaster to the Weequay, who’s otherwise unarmed.

She withdraws a thin laser saw from her back. It’s shoddy work with exposed circuits, but if she tried to get a metal or plastic cover for the tool it’d overheat. With a flick of a switch, she turns it on and cuts a circle around the blast door’s lock.

Everything after that is easy.

The lock goes out, they slip in silently.

Both guards don’t see them coming and it’s the work of a few moments to get them stunned and tied up in a corner. Vette slices the security feed so that their faces won’t be recorded and none of this sends up an alert.

Then she sits back and lets her friend get to work.

“They had me workin’ on building these things, ya know?” the Weequay idly comments. He’s sliced through the first dozen layers of security with ease and is running up a series of encoding programs. “Could probably disassemble this hunk of metal blindfolded.”

“I’ve always thought these designs were pretty shit.”

“Oh yeah. They’re rubbish at anything other than long range communication.”

He plugs a datastick into the terminal. That must the information that Darun had been talking about, the short list. A series of names and locations for one entire slave quarter on Tatooine, almost a dozen people trapped there. Names, as well as shock collar codes.

Vette’s never seen the emergency surgery before, but she’s heard enough to know that she’d only get someone to perform it on her as a last resort. It’s far too easy to trigger the detonation mechanism during the process. When she’s the last resort for someone, she’s always tried her own method - stealing the collar’s controls and hoping that she’s fast enough to get the thing off before it remote detonates.

Not that she hasn’t contemplated doing so with Gimrizh, but she doesn’t know where the woman keeps the controls. And she can’t say the idea of stealing from a Sith is enticing. Not to mention…

Well, it feels different with Gimrizh. With her, Vette’s not sure which angle to play yet.

“Ninety percent,” he tells her.

Vette checks the security feeds to make sure that no one has come to investigate. They’re in the clear - as to be expected from her work, she thinks pridefully. “We’re good to go. You’ve got that set to burn once we’re out of here?”

“Yep.”

They watch as the transmission reaches one hundred percent and then he unplugs the datastick. He puts the terminal on a full system wipe that’ll scour the hard drives clean of any trace of them. From his pocket, he retrieves a vial of corrosive acid. He dunks the datastick into it and Vette stares as the information on it is destroyed in the most secure way possible. Even if he’s caught after this, the Cartel won’t get their information back, and that’s what matters.

“Where you headed?” Vette asks as she double checks the terminal rooms before leading her companion out. “I could escort you.”

“Nah. I’ve got a night bird to Bothan space. Can catch it just fine on my own.”

“Bothan space, huh? That where the trail ends for you?”

He gives her an emotionless smile. “One of those names belongs to my son. I’ve got a trip to make to Rishi before I can get close to my final stop

An old, faded image of Tivva and Deck - Vette’s mother - flash before her eyes. It’s been so long. Her heart aches at the thought of never seeing them again. There’s got to be a way to search them out, she just doesn’t know where to start getting the information. Info recovery has never been her specialty - she’d left that to Nok Drayen’s crew as a kid and then left it to Flash when she’d joined her gang.

If she wants to see what’s left of her biological family again, she’s going to have to either find an information specialist or somehow become one.

“How about you?” The Weequay’s question jolts her out of her thoughts and she mentally swears at herself for getting so distracted when they’re still in relatively unsafe territories. “Where’s your trail end?”

“Dunno.” Vette’s never been trying to get anywhere, not really. Not in the way most former-slaves are. She’s got no real memories of home to go to, not planet that she’s always dreamed of getting to one day. She’s got ideas, vague and wispy as smoke. Goals. Stuff she wants to do, rather than a place she wants to end up. “I’ll settle for a good ship and decent company, I suppose.”

Which, she supposes, could be Gimrizh’s ship. With a few crucial modifications, that is.

“Not a bad place to be,” he agrees.

She gets her second blaster back from him and then leaves him at the spaceport entrance before slinking off towards a bar where she can safely wait out a few hours until she’s in the clear to report back to Darun.

~*~

They race back to Setsyn’s shop as fast as they can, but Gimrizh has no doubts that they won’t make it. There’s no way they can cut across half of Nar Shaddaa faster than someone can shoot a blaster or faster than Rathari can swing his lightsaber. No, the real question is what they’ll find along with Setsyn’s corpse.

She holds up a hand before the two of them burst into the shop. There’s a ripple in the force that can only mean danger ahead of them. Likely Rathari left a couple of soldiers behind as a trap. A poor trap, given that she’s pretty sure Girik was the strongest single player Rathari had and no soldiers can really compare to that, but still a trap nonetheless. If they’re Rathari’s men, that means they’re Imperials, which means she’ll have to fall back on non-lethal combat. The Empire doesn’t need more dead soldiers.

“Rathari left some of his soldiers behind,” she whispers to Quinn as she unclips her lightsaber from her belt.

He gives her a quick nod and sets his blaster to stun. As she creeps towards the entrance she wishes that there’s a stun setting for a lightsaber. But there isn't, and she leaves her blade unlit as she slides behind the nearest guard.

With a single lightning fast movement, she rushes the guard, clamping her hand over his mouth to keep his quiet and then slamming the hilt of her blade into his temple. The soldier goes limp in her arms and she silently lowers him down to the floor.

Next to her she sees Quinn doing the same, using the hard durasteel of his blaster to render the second guard unconscious without firing a single shot.

They head to the end of the office hall and Gimrizh presses her back against the cold metal wall, glancing over her shoulder to get a look at whoever’s left in the office. There’s another pair of guards pacing the edges of the office, carrying blaster rifles and keeping a much more careful eye out than the last two, but no matter. She hardly needs to be silent anymore, now she just needs to manage to not kill them.

She strides into the office, causing both soldiers to shout and start firing at her.

It takes more effort than she thought it would not to activate her saber and deflect the bolts, but she keeps it unlit and resorts to dodging the fire, spinning out of the way as fast as she can. If she tried deflecting them, she might send a bolt somewhere she doesn't want it to go and kill one of them. That's not the way she's trying to play this. It's a challenge, keeping her opponents alive, and not one she normally entertains.

She rushes the nearest guard and kicks his blaster out of his hands. While he tries to draw his sidearm, she grabs his blaster herself and strikes him with the butt of the weapon. He crumples like flimsiplast and she she whirls around to fend off the last opponent only to see him on the ground, clutching a bleeding leg.

Quinn fires a second shot, a stunner this time, and then the guard's out cold.

"Nice shot," she says. She puts her unused lightsaber away and looks around the room. It's mostly empty, the previously filled slave cages are abandoned and there are only a few corpses - mostly Setsyn's skeleton security force.

One slightly smaller body catches her eye and Gimrizh kneels down next to Setsyn's body. She checks for pulse absently, knowing before her fingers even touch cold skin that Setsyn's dead. There's no pulse in the force that would come from a living person. There's just stillness.

No obvious injuries though, no lightsaber burns or wounds from a blaster. It looks like she just fell over and died.

"How..." Gimrizh murmurs to herself before she puts two and two together and answers the question. "Rathari led this attack personally. He's not hiding anymore."

"My lord," Quinn says, holding a holo recorder that's steadily flashing a red light. "I believe there's a message for you."

She hastily snatches up the recorder and sets it to play. "Let's see what Rathari has to say for himself."

Two bright figures appear in the holo, one a man wearing a heavy cloak and the other Setsyn. Setsyn is dangling from midair, her hands clasping at her throat as she tries to grasp for breath. A moment later and Rathari lets her fall.

Rathari turns to them and his slimy voice speaks, "I received your message. If you want Dellocon, you want me. Meet me at my platform on the roof of the Network Access satellite tower and we'll end this. I look forward to killing you - and then I'll go after Baras."

The message ends and Gimrizh tosses the holo recorder to the floor as though it’s burning.

She has to take a deep breath. Her hands are shaking, she tightens them into fists until her knuckles are white. Even when Rathari’s men had attacked her - she tried to keep them alive, she’d never tried to take an Imperial life, and he had. That line that differentiates how they treat their enemies versus their allies - it hadn’t existed for Rathari.

Does it exist for Baras? If she ever becomes as powerful as Rathari, will it exist for her?

“Rathari has made a mistake,” she says, and to her surprise her voice comes out clear and confident and angry. “This attack - he’s overextended. He’s lost resources he could have saved to defend himself, and now he’s revealed his location. That will be the last mistake he ever makes.”

Quinn points out, “It’s undoubtedly a trap, my lord.”

“Oh, absolutely.” Gimrizh withdraws her communicator. “I suppose I’ll be calling that favor in sooner rather than later.”

~*~

Gimrizh strides into Rathari's trap, projecting as much false confidence and she can muster. The satellite platform is a huge open air station, surrounded on all sides by the looming skyscrapers of Nar Shaddaa. And in the center of the platform is an open, active, power containment unit cradling a beam of energy between two chargers. Maybe she can throw Rathari into it. Either way, it’s convenient for her. Those massive buildings provided an easy vantage point for Quinn and the pubs.  

Her eyes dart briefly to the few people she can see on the platform in front of her and then to the left where Quinn and the pub soldiers are hiding, waiting for the right moment to strike. That group has taken the high ground, they're in an ideal place to take out any potential threats from a mile away and keep a solid eye on the battlefield. It's a position that she thinks will suit the captain well, although she knows he's far from thrilled at having to work with the pubs. Not that she’s fond of it either, but if it works, she’ll take it.

Despite every bone in her body screaming at her to do so, she keeps her hands off her lightsaber. She walks out onto the platform, apparently defenseless.

She just hopes Rathari's as overconfident as she thinks.

Standing in the center of the platform, calm as can be, is Rathari. He's a solid foot taller than her and wearing heavy armour under a dark cloak. Next to him, almost unnoticeable, is a nervous sort of man who matches Dellocon's description.

She comes to a stop a good couple of meters away from the two and draws a thin smile on her face. "Rathari, Dellocon. Pleasure to meet the two of you in the flesh."

"Ah, so Baras' goon has finally arrived," Rathari says in a low, slick voice, "It is foolish of you to come alone. You lack your master's caution."

That's what he thinks. She almost wants to tell him now, just to see the look on his face. But the surprise will be sweeter if she waits until the right moment. She just has to keep Rathari's attention on her so that he has no reason to reach out in the force and sense her companions on the nearby rooftop.

"And you lack a power base," she retorts. “I think I prefer my position."

Rathari laughs, no real amusement in his voice. It’s done to intimidate her more than anything else. "I can see why Baras keeps a creature like you around. You might make a good pet."

"Look," Dellocon interjects, finally speaking up. "Baras is paranoid. My cover was intact, I was in no danger of being discovered. What did Baras expect? For me to just wait for my death without putting up a fight? That’s absurd!"

Gimrizh gives him a scathing look, even though part of her does indeed pity the man. "You knew the risks of the job when you took it."

"And I know how to avoid them," Dellocon replies grimly.

Rathari’s grin is a sharp menacing split across his face. "In a hundred years, when I rule the Dark Council, my murder of you and Baras won't even be a footnote in my history."

"How do you manage to hold a lightsaber when you're so busy carrying around such a massive ego?" she comments.

He doesn't bother responding to that but she can see a twitch of a facial muscle. Good, she's getting to him. The more irritated by her he is, the less likely he'll spot her reinforcements before it's time. His anger will draw the dark side to him, yes. She’s just hoping that he will make the easy mistake of underestimating her. She is young, younger than most Sith in the field, and she know she doesn’t look impressive - shorter than he is by a number of inches and the sort of wirey muscle that provides no intimidating bulk.

"I won't duel you," he tells her pompously. "You haven't earned that honor."

"A lord of the Sith should keep his word," she says, "You talk about honor but do you have any yourself?"

He presses a button on a wrist comm panel and a door at the end of the platform slides open. A half dozen soldiers brandishing blasters creep out, moving to surround Gimrizh.

"The Sith Order is built on lies," Rathari says confidently.

How dare - “The Jedi are built on lies! The Sith are better than them in every way. The Order itself is not a disgrace - you are.”

“I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are as foolish as you appear,” he replies. “In time, you will learn that our order is rotten to the core. Nothing will change until I am at the Order’s helm.”

Rathari's troops circle Gimrizh with guns at the ready. She has no doubt that it might be a tad challenging to face them all at once, but that's not the plan. They knew, before she walked into this trap, that Rathari would bring backup. And that's what they had planned for. Everything is going perfectly.

She just stands there, not drawing her weapon, not even flinching. If she starts running around, the snipers on the rooftops will be more likely to hit her as well and she can't have that. The pubs aren't exactly going to be careful with her life.

"Oh dear I'm so overwhelmed, whatever shall I do?" she drawls flatly.

"You were overconfident!" Rathari tells her, "And that will be your downfall. Men, attack-!"

Two of his men fall to the ground with smoldering holes in their heads.

As the rest of the squad moves to try and find the shooter, bolts take them down as well, thin pops of noise followed by a dead corpse collapsing to the floor. Soon, it's just Gimrizh, standing confidently in a circle of dead bodies.

"Did I mention I brought friends?" She says pleasantly.

Rathari snarls at her, "You- I should have sensed them. What did you do?"

"I talked to you," she tells him honestly. "You did the rest for me."

Now she ignites her lightsaber, snapping the blade to her side, stepping over the corpse in front of her to move towards her real enemy.

A second later, Rathari switches on his own bright red saber and moves to engage her.

She flings her blade up to block his initial strike and holds firm as their sabers clash with a hiss of energy. Before coming out onto this platform, her captain had given her a very comprehensive warning about the dangers of trying to snipe someone mid-combat without accidentally hitting an ally, and she’d taken it to heart. Quinn can't help her with this part of the fight, she's on her own against Rathari. She doesn't know if she can beat him. At the end of the day, he’s a lord, she’s an apprentice, and she never had a choice in whether or not to face him in combat. She's done what she can to tip the odds in her favor and now the rest comes down to pure skill.

Rathari pulls back and then slices his blade through where her neck had been a moment ago. Too slow. She’s already spinning behind him to slash at his unprotected back.

The red of her blade burns at his heavy durasteel armour for a second before he brings his sword back to throw her off. Unharmed, but enraged, he stabs at her with renewed fury, following his initial strike with a number of hard sharp slashes aimed at her torso.

She throws herself to the ground and rolls out of the way, coming up on her knees to block a strong overhead attack from Rathari.

Sparks hit her face as she holds his saber off her by mere inches. He's got a good deal more physical strength than she does and when it comes down to these contests of just pushing on each other's blades, she's outmatched. Fortunately, she's used to being small and combat isn't just based in muscle.

Still keeping his saber locked with hers, she uses the force to push herself to her feet and then kicks him in the gut.

Rathari gasps and stumbles back, freeing Gimrizh up to go on the offensive and strike.

He quickly deflects her attacks and lunges. His blade flashes towards her head and she agiley twists out of the way. Her gaze flickers to the power containment unit in front of her and she gets an idea.

As Rathari slashes at her again, she locks her saber with his and pushes his blade to the side, ripping a hole in his defenses. She slams her palm into his chest and uses the force to send him flying.

Right into the open power beam.

The raw energy of the beam holds him in place as lightning crackles around him, a different kind of power than force lightning. The energy tears screams from him, constant screams as he tries to free himself. Gimrizh winces, but doesn't look away.

Suddenly the force cries out to her and she turns to see Dellocon holding a blaster to her head. Shit - how did she forget about him -

Before she can put her lightsaber to his flesh, a blast from the rooftop brings him down. There’s a neat hole in Dellocon’s temple as his body topples over. A crack shot indeed, she thinks appreciatively.

She looks back to the power unit just in time to see Rathari blast himself free with a burst of force energy. He falls to the ground in front of her, trying to push himself up and failing as his body spasms. Nerve damage, at a guess. She's seen and experienced a similar, if lessened, effect from force lightning. If she intends for him to live, he'd need medical attention as soon as possible to avoid permanent damage. Unlucky for him, that.

"You’ll - you’ll never win," he sputters.

"You've lost, Rathari," she says, walking towards him with her lit blade in hand. "My master has ordered you dead and so dead you must be."

A thousand conflicting thoughts fly through her mind as she raises her blade above his head. At the end of the day, Rathari is still Sith. He still could be used for the good of the Empire, he could still contribute to their fight against the Jedi, if only he hadn’t gotten on Baras’s bad side, there’s so much more he could have done. She did not spend her entire life struggling to become Sith just to kill her fellows.

She latches onto the dark side and uses it to shove her emotions to the side. Unlike with Mashallon, there is no flash of images, no screaming in her hearts. She can do this. Becoming the executioner Baras demands she be is no different than cutting down soldiers in the heat of combat. That’s what she has to believe.

She brings down her blade.

Rathari’s head rolls to the ground and then the rest of his body follows with a heavy thud.

Her hands are steady. She clips her lightsaber back to her belt, and then turns on her comm link to speak. "Captain, we're finished here. Meet me inside with Commander Naughlin and his men please."

"We're on our way, my lord," Quinn says through the static of the comm.

She closes the line and checks the power unit to make sure she didn't cause it undue damage. It wouldn't do to accidentally cause an explosion or something. The levels are steady when she checks, and although the power is fluctuating a bit things look fine. Having Rathari in the power beam apparently didn't have any lasting negative effects. She gives his corpse one final glance before heading back to the tower.

An elevator carrying Quinn and Commander Naughlin's squad arrived a moment after she does.

"Captain, Commander," she greets, "Excellent work up there, it would have been a much worse fight if I hadn't had help."

Naughlin, a grim sort of man, nods solemnly and says. "Then our debt is paid. There's no one left but you and us now, may we go?"

They have earned it. They helped a great deal and it wouldn't be right to take back her word at the last minute. And yet they’re still Republic. Can she kill an Imperial and then a minute later let a Republic contingent go? Is that the sort of Sith that she wants to be? Is there room in her job for that sort of discrepancy?

Can she keep her word to them with the lifestyle she leads?

“Go then,” she says, as though her lips move of their own accord. “If you are lucky, you will never see me again.”

He almost salutes, thinks better of it, and then just gives her another nod before he and his men turn and walk away.

Gimrizh and Quinn watch them leave in silence. She's still not certain if her decision was the right one and she can tell the captain isn't quite sure about simply letting enemy soldiers go. But Nar Shaddaa is neutral, and the war hasn't started up again just yet. Technically, they aren’t necessarily obligated to attack on sight, as they would be if this were wartime. The treaty won't last and she wonders if one day she'll find herself killing the men that she just spared.

"Thank you, captain," she says as the pubs vanish from her admittedly embarrassingly limited senses.

He looks somewhat confused as he adjusts the heavy sniper rifle he's carrying to rest against his back. "For what, my lord?"

The corner of her mouth tugs up into a smile. "For going along with my fool plan. Thank you for trusting that I knew what I was doing. And thank you for killing Dellocon."

"You're welcome," he says after a moment's thought. "If you don't mind me asking, how did you know it was me who shot the agent?"

“You said you were a crack shot when you joined my crew. I certainly don’t think a pub could have been half as accurate,” she replies. It’s not the entire truth. The force had flared in a certain way, a way that’d made her certain it had been him, a way she can’t explain with any words currently in her vocabulary. "Now let's head back to the ship. We need to report back to Darth Baras and then we're probably off this planet. Vette will be devastated that her vacation is cut short."

He hesitates and then says again, "I do apologize, my lord."

"And I said it's forgiven. But I'm not the one you need to apologize to," she tells him.

"... Right, my lord," he says at last, and the thought of apologizing to Vette seems to be one he dislikes, far more than apologizing to Gimrizh.

She strides out of the satellite center with a good deal more spring in her step than before, "Don't worry. We'll be off this planet soon at least. We're always on the move it seems."

"It'll be good to leave," Quinn says distastefully, "It's not often that I so vehemently agree with Lord Baras, but Nar Shaddaa really is a horrid planet."

She thinks about the place and has to admit that she isn't so sure. It's filthy and crowded and full of light, but there's something about it that she enjoys. It feels like a place where she could go anywhere, try anything, or be anyone. "I don't mind it here," she says thoughtfully, "It isn't as bad as I was expecting."

~*~

Vette digs around in her blasters’ guts. Making the power mag life a bit better has gone well so far, but somehow she’s fucked up the cooling system. The entire thing has been taken apart and spread out across her workbench - the entire half of the engine room she’s claimed as her own space.

There’s a metallic clank that makes her put the hydrospanner down and scowl. That noise has to be the main hatch opening, which means Gimrizh and Quinn are back. Great. The one person that she really doesn’t want to deal with and the one person that she’s not sure whether or not she’s going to steal from. What a wonderful pair of people that she doesn’t particularly feel like talking to right now.

But she gets up and heads out of the engine room anyways, pointing her blasters on the way out and muttering, “Don’t go anywhere till I’m finished with you, ya bastards.”

She heads into the main room and flops down on the couch, crossing her arms stubbornly. “Hey,” she says, watching Gimrizh move to sit near her and Quinn put a sniper rifle away in the arms cabinet. What the hells did he need a sniper rifle for? Ah well, she doesn’t care. She’s nosey, but she doesn’t care. Gimrizh takes off her heavy belt and the lightsaber attached to it and places the thing on the table with a quiet clatter.

“Hello Vette,” Gimrizh says carefully, leaning back and running a hand through her slightly matted hair. “Everything’s done here, we’ve got the spy Baras sent us here for and Rathari’s dead as well. We should be back into Imperial space within a few days. Once Nar Shaddaa’s behind us, I’ll holo Baras and see where we’re going next.”

Vette shrugs. She doesn’t know if she’ll be on this ship when it leaves the planet. It’s a thought she’s still turning over in her head. “Right.”

Apparently Gimrizh isn’t going to let her go without some conversation, “Is the ship ready for a week or more in space?”

“Yeah.”

“Good,” Gimrizh sighs and then calls out, “Captain, get in here please. We need to have a discussion. Vette, you too, I see you trying to get up.”

Vette slinks back into her seat and Quinn appears at the med bay door before edging into the main room to join them. Oh great, this is going to be a talk. On her list of things she wanted to do today, getting yelled at by both the captain and the Sith is probably near the bottom, right below being shot. Sure, she was a bit mean earlier, but he totally deserved it. And he had been a right asshole to her as well, so her feelings of regret are a bit on the nonexistent side.

The first person to speak is Gimrizh, no real surprise there, “Vette, I’d like to apologize to you for yelling at you earlier.” And she says it with such sincerity that all Vette’s retorts die on her lips. “And for not addressing your concerns sooner.”

While Vette’s just flapping her jaw, trying to think of something to say, Gimrizh coughs not so subtly and gives Quinn a look.

He clears his throat. “I apologize as well. Please forgive my rudeness.”

Oh well great, now Vette’s going to look like a complete asshole if she doesn’t say sorry as well. They’ve got her trapped alright, but to her mild surprise, she isn’t as upset by that as she thinks she should be. “Yeah, okay, I’m sorry too, alright? Just so long as we’re clear that there will be no further mentions of ‘my Twi’lek mouth’.”

He nods, the motion stiff and awkward. “Agreed.”

She won’t take back that comment she made about him being a racist, though. That she’s sticking by. But ah hells, yeah she’s an adult, she can get past a little argument. She can be mature about this. Sometimes she thinks she’s the most mature person on this ship.

“Good,” Gimrizh comments in a tone that makes it clear that everything is good, had better be good, and that no one wants to know what she’s going to do if things aren’t good. “Captain, prep the engines and makes sure the ship is ready for takeoff when I get back.”

“Yes, my lord,” he says with a nod and then vanishes into the bridge.

Gimrizh stands up and gives Vette an expectant look. “Come outside with me, I want to speak with you.”

Giving a dramatic groan, Vette reluctantly follows Gimrizh out of the ship. They head down the gangplank and into the spaceport proper, and the whole time Gimrizh doesn’t say anything, just keeps heading towards the spaceport exit.

“Is there somewhere in particular we’re going?” Vette asks as they pass a row of elevators and a gang of overly enthusiastic Cathar.

Gimrizh keeps walking, “Just headed outside.”

They step out into the open air and loiter near the edge of the spaceport. A number of taxis and private speeders wait by the drop off point, hoping to attract customers. A steady stream of people wander past, some carrying luggage, some obviously Cartel members patrolling the spaceport as it’s probably the only part of Nar Shaddaa that’s not completely dominated by the Hutts. Vette kicks a piece of rubbish off the edge that’s only a few feet away from them. It skitters off the concrete they’re standing on and falls off the huge drop.

“So what’s up?” Vette asks glumly.

GImrizh sighs and looks out at the massive, sprawling city. “I wanted to apologize. I know you don’t like the captain, and I can’t force you two to get along, but I still shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“It’s in the past,” Vette says with a wave of her hand, even though it does feel a lot better to hear another apology. “I’m not going to hold a grudge. Well, not much of one anyways. Besides, this is progress, I think.”

“That’s… not all I wanted to apologize for,” Gimrizh admits after a pause. “I had almost begun to forget - that you’re still a slave. You don’t act like one and I - I just stopped thinking about it. Here,” she holds out the shock trigger that she’s never used. “Take it. I’ll take the collar off too, and when we’re connected to the Imperial database, I’ll file your releasement papers, and I’ll get you an official job and a salary - if you want it.”

Vette gingerly takes the small metallic device and stares at it. “You - really?”

She nods and then steps forward to reach behind Vette’s neck and disable the collar. Vette feels a strange pinching sensation as the collar releases itself from her skin and then, for the first time in almost a year, a warm breeze on her skin. Then Gimrizh hands her the collar.

“I-” Vette sputters, unable to form a coherent thought, “But I didn’t ask.”

“You shouldn’t have needed to ask,” Gimrizh says firmly, “I should have done that the day I met you.”

Vette staggers forward and then throws her arms around Gimrizh. The Sith tenses up at the unexpected hug, but Vette just pulls her in tighter. If her eyes sting, well. Gimrizh can’t see it anyways. “Thank you thank you thank you!”

Gimrizh awkwardly tries to step back and push Vette away. “No need for that. Really.”

“Right, of course,” she says with a wink. “Wouldn’t want to ruin your fearsome Sithy-ness by spreading talk of niceness.”

This is more familiar ground for the both of them. “I do have a reputation to maintain,” Gimrizh comments.

“What brought this on?”

Vette’s still a bit - So she doesn’t need to steal her controls. She won’t need to try and trick or persuade Gimrizh into freeing her. But if she doesn’t understand why this change happened, there’s nothing to stop Gimrizh from reversing it, and it still won’t help her figure out if there really is room for her on this crew.

If Gimrizh keeps frowning like that, she’s going to end up with permanent lines around her forehead. “You said the Empire has no honor.”

“I did, yeah.”

“It should. It does, I know it does. And if I am the only Sith around, then I must exemplify that. I have to be as good as I want the Order I serve to be.” She stares off at something Vette doesn’t think she’ll ever see. “I need to know that there’s room for honor in Baras’s service.”

“Ah.” Vette looks down at the two bits of metal in her hands. She’d always thought that one day she’d get the damn thing off, but it’d stayed on for so long that she almost started to doubt it. Now that it’s finally gone, her neck feels lighter and it’s easier to hold her head up high. And she desperately wants to move away from whatever solemn thoughts Gimrizh is lost in. “What should I do with this hunk of rubbish?”

“Whatever you want,” Gimrizh tells her, “I’m not going to tell you what to do.”

Vette glances back down at the collar and then looks out at the city. Let the thing rot on Nar Shaddaa like everything else does on this planet. She doesn’t want to carry it with her a second longer. She draws back her arm and throws the whole thing off the edge of the spaceport. It careens over into open air and then disappears from her sight forever.

“Good riddance,” Vette spits over the edge.

Gimrizh steps back and tilts her head back towards the spaceport, “I’m going to head back for the ship. You have two hours before we leave Nar Shaddaa. If you want to stay here, I understand. You’re not bound to me, not anymore and I won’t force you to stay with me if you don’t want to. I know that my line of work is dangerous and I know that you don’t get along with Quinn. You aren’t obligated to remain with me.”

No. She isn’t. Not at all. Nothing’s stopping from staying on this planet that she loves so much. Vette beams, “I’ll be back in two hours.”

~*~

“Hey Darun!”

The Togruta looks up from wiping down his bar and puts his hands on his hips with a grin. A quick flick of a switch later, and the bar’s sign is turned from ‘open’ to ‘closed’. If there were any patrons, he’d have told them to get out by now. “Vette! Got any news, or are you just here for more of my damn fine booze?”

She slides on up to him but doesn’t take a seat at the bar. She won’t be here long enough for sitting down to be worth the effort of standing back up again. “Sorry, but that drink will have to wait. I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be space-born in a couple hours. I did promise to let you know before leaving. Don’t want to just vanish again.”

“You’re skipping town?” Darun asks, like he almost can’t believe it. “You didn’t mention the job going downhill.”

She shakes her head at him. “It’s not that. Not really.”

“If you stick around another couple of months, I’m sure I’ll have something similar for you.”

“My gang can do what I do, and better. Come on, Darun, we both knew that I was never going to be part of your stop on the trail forever. I need to do more. I need to do my own thing. I’m a thief, a smuggler, a tinker - I’ve never tried to work with the Empire before.”

He shoots a glass a dirty look. “The Empire is it’s own bag of problems.”

“It’s not as bad as Hutts,” she says diplomatically. “But it’s not that. I think there’s opportunities for me there. I… I need to find my mother and sister. Doing this job for you reminded me of that. My gang’s not half bad with information, but all our contacts are for Twi’lek artifacts, not Twi’lek people. The Empire’s got records, damn meticulous ones, and a few months tagging along with a Sith could get me more contacts than theft could in years.”

The one thing she’s never known about Darun is where he came from. She doesn’t know if he has a family, or if he did and lost them. She just knows that his eyes go murky when she mentions her mother and sister.

“Alright, kid,” he says at last. “Not like I’ve ever been able to stop you doing whatever fool idea gets into your head anyways.”

“Here,” she places a scrap of flimsy with a scrawled out number on the counter. “That’s my ship’s holo frequency. When my gang gets back, have them give me a call. I’ll stop by your place for a drink and a reunion before you know it.”

He picks up the scrap and flips it elegantly through his fingers before tucking it into a pocket, “Will do. I’ll send you a holo as soon as I see those three Twi’leks waltz into my cantina. I’m sure they’ll be mighty happy to hear that you’re still alive. But… are you sure that you’re okay with staying with some Sith?”

“Yeah,” Vette says confidently, “I’m sure.”

“Sith are awful big fans of collars.”

“I don’t think this one is. Who knows, maybe there’s more work to be done from the inside than the outside.”

He smiles flatly at her. “As long as you’re sure, kid. My offer still stands, if you ever find yourself out of a place and near our little moon, feel free to hit me up. You always got a place here.”

“Aw, thanks Darun,” She grins and leans over the counter to give him a one armed hug. Today’s a hugging day, she thinks. Good day to give a lot of hugs. Maybe she can get Quinn to have a heart attack if she hugs him. That’d be hilarious. “You’re my favorite bartender in the galaxy, ya know that?”

He laughs, “You’re a good kid, Vette.”

“I’ll see you around,” she says cheerfully as she practically skips out of the cantina, “Call me sometime.”

“Hey,” he calls just before she’s out the door, “Take care of yourself, kid. I don’t wanna hear about you getting caught anymore. Only time I wanna hear your name is if you rob a Grand Moff blind, you got it?”

“Loud and clear!” She waves at him and then leaves, just as quickly as she came. She’s got places to be.

~*~

Draahg tosses the datastick down on Baras’s desk. “Breev has finally reported back, and I’m happy to say she’s got a lead on Karr’s padawan.”

Whatever work Baras had been doing prior to now is swiftly abandoned. He latches onto the datastick and immediately plugs it into his terminal, scanning the information. “Good,” he tells Draahg absently, clearly now engrossed in the minute and unimportant comings and goings of Karr’s padawan.

It isn’t as though Draahg expects praise from Baras, he knows his master is a busy man, and has much work to do within the Sith Order. But this is different. This is an obsession the likes of which he hasn’t seen his master succumb to during all eight years of serving him. Sure, the news of this padawan’s powers is discouraging. The decision to wipe out compromised spies is the correct one, and in no way an overreaction.

But the determination to hunt down the padawan to such an extent, to find their weaknesses, to exploit them - if Draahg didn’t know better he’d say Baras is planning on turning the padawan, not killing them.

“Why is this one padawan so important?” he demands. “Once we get a name, any bounty hunter could take them out. You don’t need to have me out of the field, on standby, ready to personally abduct them as soon as we uncover their identity.”

Baras’s sole visible eye flashes behind his mask. “I never instructed you to abduct the padawan.”

“Don’t treat me like an idiot. We both know you aren’t planning on killing them.”

“Perhaps.”

Why?”

“You have no idea how long I’ve been searching for this padawan, you have no idea how important they are.”

That makes no sense. “You’ve only known of their existence for a month and a half!”

Baras points at the door. “Prove yourself, and perhaps I shall share such details with you. As it is, you are a demanding child, and I will not indulge you.”

If eight damn years isn’t enough, Draahg doesn’t know what will be.

~*~

They leave Nar Shaddaa as the sun’s setting, a bright orange turning the heavy fumes of the planet’s atmosphere to burning shades all the way from crimson to violet. Gimrizh is sitting in the helmsman’s chair, watching their slow ascent through the spaceport’s entrance. In front of her is Vette at the co-pilot’s seat, and Quinn taking the wheel.

Goodbye, Nar Shaddaa, she thinks. There’s not much for her to do right now, as Vette has banned her from being behind any important controls for the foreseeable future. But the view is, as it always is, utterly stunning. While this place wasn’t the despicable planet she had been led to believe, it’s still one more planet in a whole galaxy full of other planets. And who knows where she’ll be sent next. She’d love to see Naboo, for example.

“Are we ready to leave?” she asks, watching as they approach the port’s shields.

Quinn presses the comm button. “Tower command, are we clear for departure?”

“Tower command to unmarked Imperial Fury Interceptor number 11-1-ZAN, you are cleared for take off. Shields will be lowered momentarily.” The voice says blandly.

“Damn,” Vette remarks as they wait for the shields to fall. “We really need to name this thing, don’t we?”

Quinn pulls up a file on the terminal that flashes a blank input field, “The name designation for this vessel is currently blank, my lord. Is there a name you’d like me to put down?”

Naming her ship hasn’t exactly been on the front of her mind lately, “Why can’t we just name her Fury?” she asks. It’s a ship, but naming conventions can hardly be that complicated, right? Can’t they just pick something easy to remember?

Vette rolls her eyes. “As I said, Sith suck at naming things.”

For a moment, it looks like Quinn is about to make a scathing comment and then he doesn’t and Gimrizh smiles. She stares out the viewport and thinks for a moment. “How about Horizon? That’s not a bad name.”

“Ugh,” Vette sighs, “Well, I suppose it could be worse.”

Quinn types the name into the field and then closes the file, “Horizon is set. The shields are being lowered, my lord.”

“Get us into open space,” Gimrizh says, leaning back in her chair and watching the stars race to meet them.   

 

Chapter Text

~*~

“Sign here,” Quinn says. A series of applications and forms are spread out before him on the main terminal, and he has momentarily forgotten his dislike of Vette in favor of meticulously explaining how to file each form. “Initial at the bottom, and then again at the end of every line on the following page.”

Vette had started this task bubbly and enthusiastic. Since then, a puzzled frown has become more and more prominent across her face. “What about this line here - ‘Subject to blah blah blah’?”

“A disclaimer. Simply put, if the application is lost in transit or misfiled, the Registry Office is not at fault and you will will need to pay a secondary fee to resubmit.”

“Another fee?”

“It’s just five credits.”

“It’s not the amount, it’s the principle of the thing,” she grumbles as she signs away, the lightpen a flurry of motion as she goes through the pages.

Gimrizh sits back on the couch, her feet curled up under her and a relatively untouched information packet in her lap. She’d been working from the comfort of the bridge until the noise Vette had been making simply became too much of a distraction and she’d moved here, to at least watch the proceedings.

They’ve been docked at an Imperial spaceport in the mid rim for three days now. Baras had ordered them to hold position, so even though Gimrizh is certain there’s more important and pressing work to be done, they’ve been on stand by for about a week since leaving Nar Shaddaa. One of the good things about being moored here is that they have a very secure connection to all the Kaas City holonet servers, and Vette has been working on filing her official releasement papers.

To her pleasant surprise, the captain had been perfectly willing to help with the applications. It seems as though his perfectionist tendencies had recoiled at the prospect of Vette filing them incorrectly.

“Done!” Vette slams the lightpen down on the terminal proudly. “I’m free!”

Quinn delicately picks up the lightpen and puts it in its proper place, visibly trying not to glare at her. “No, you are not. The application needs to be filed, and you need to wait for the Registry Office to accept it, and then you need to officially file for Imperial citizenship in order for your releasement papers to be accepted into the system, and - “

She shushes him. “Let me have this moment.”

He ignores that, pulling up an additional set of forms. “These are your citizenship forms, if you’d like to get a head start. You won’t be able to file them until you hear back from the Registry Office because you’ll need your temporary ID number for the citizenship forms to be accepted.”

“Alright,” Vette cracks her neck out. “Let’s kick flimsiwork’s ass.”

It looks as though whatever scathing comment Quinn’s about to make will have to be put on hold - the holo terminal is flashing.

Baras.

A jolt of panic shoots through Gimrizh’s bones as she leaps to her feet. She abandons her datapad and rushes over to the holo terminal, sliding in between Vette and Quinn and minimizing their numerous forms so that she can accept the call.

A figure forms out of blue light and she is about to drop to one knee when she realizes it is not her master.

“Korribanil, yes?” the man asks.

There’s a lightsaber at his waist. Sith then, and higher up than her or else he would have likely shown her more deference. “That’s right,” she replies. “May I have your name?”

“I’m Lord Draahg,” he tells her. “Darth Baras’s most senior apprentice.”

She bows deeply at the waist. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Is there something our master requires of me?”

Even though she’s not looking him in the eye, she gets the distinct impression that he’s studying her. It’s not a strong impression, so he’s likely only vaguely interested in her. That isn’t surprising, given how she’s always know Baras’s concern for her is relatively minor, and she has no reason to think that such a senior apprentice would spare more than a brief moment of thought for her.

“Yes. I’ve got some bad news for you first, though. Your ship is being tracked. Someone on Nar Shaddaa planted a bug somewhere on your ship and we’ve caught a ship trailing your movements from there to Imperial space.”

Shit. A fucking tail.

“I can deal with this as soon as possible,” she says promptly. “What are our master’s orders on this subject?”

“You’re to bait the trap, as it were. Your next mission is on Tatooine and unfortunately Nomen Karr already knows we’ll be sending an agent there, so he gains no new information by having his man track you to the planet.” Draahg shrugs. “It’s a regrettable information leak, but at least we kill one of his men in the process. Once you’re on Tatooine, find and remove the tracker, then bring it to the coordinates I’m sending you.”

The holo beeps as the info package goes through. “Is there something in particular that’ll be there?”

“Me,” Draahg replies with a wiry grin.

A trap within a trap then. Even if Nomen Karr’s agent doesn’t come close enough for Gimrizh to tell that he’s there, Draahg will presumably be within range to hunt the agent down on his own. If all goes well, she won’t need to do much more than stand around on Tatooine and look like an easy target. Honestly, if she had her way, she’d just find the tracker and shoot it out an airlock before jumping to hyperspace, but she understands Baras’s orders. Better to kill this agent of Nomen Karr’s while they have the chance.

“I see. What is my mission on Tatooine, what is Lord Baras sending me there for anyway?”

“You’ll be sent the contact details of one of our master’s agents once we’ve dealt with this threat,” Draahg tells her. “I’d send you an information packet on her, but that’s not my style and that’s not how she works either.”

She would still have appreciated some sort of briefing. “Of course,” she says instead, because he’s her superior in every respect and this isn’t an argument she wants to have.

“I’ll see you on Tatooine then,” he says, almost cheerful. “Good luck with the debugging.”

The holo blinks out.

Vette wrinkles her nose at the information. “If someone’s scratched up our baby’s hull with a tracking device, I’m going to have words with them.”

“I can run a sweep of the ship, my lord,” Quinn proposes. “If the device hasn’t been caught by the Imperial Spacedock preliminary security team, it might be more difficult to locate.”

“They coulda sliced Horizon’s base-sec on Nar Shaddaa.”

He frowns, as though somewhat annoyed Vette’s idea has merit. “Possibly. Either way, a base scan of the ship’s exterior should be able to detect the physical extrusion of a tracking device placed on the hull.”

“Honestly a physical sweep might work better, especially if our systems are compromised.”

This is the point in the conversation where Gimrizh finds she can’t quite keep up. She’s never had any sort of training in this type of thing, and she imagines her time could be better spent by preparing for the likely confrontation on Tatooine. Her injuries are mostly healed, but she needs to re-adjust after a week of Quinn insisting she not so much as twitch her shoulder or bend over to reopen her side wound.

“Just get the tracker off Horizon,” she instructs. “Tell me when it’s done, and then we can head to Tatooine.”

~*~

Malavai stares at the blue screen, the light boring into his eyes as he waits for the scan of Horizon’s exterior to be completed. It’s frustrating, to say the least, that a Republic agent had managed to plant a tracker on the ship and not a single one of them had noticed. Part of him wants to blame Vette for the slip up, as she had been the only one frequently on board the ship during their mission on Nar Shaddaa.

Except he and Lord Gimrizh had also returned at various points, and they hadn’t noticed anything amiss either. He’s not about to accuse Gimrizh of that sort of negligence, especially when he’s equally at fault.

“Ah-hah!” Vette cheers. She’s in the co-pilot’s seat to his right, her thumbs flying over a tiny, hand-held datapad. “Found the slice in our shielding. I kinda want to high five the guy that did it - it’s pretty good work.”

And Vette has been surprisingly helpful in fixing the damage.

“Whoever did it is unquestionably an enemy,” he reminds her.

She shrugs flippantly. “Six of one. Anyway, now that I’ve located the breech, it’s an easy fix, although I’ve gotta head to the engine room to install it. Better to do this sort of thing direct, and all.”

He’s hardly about to stop her from leaving. Although he might grudgingly appreciate her skills, he still finds her personality lacking. Once Vette’s abandoned the bridge, and given that Lord Gimrizh has spent the last twenty minutes silently meditating in her quarters, he finds that he is completely on his own for a while.

The blank screen on his personal datapad glows at him. He sent off his first report on Lord Gimrizh’s activities to Darth Baras a few days ago, and he’s yet to hear a reply. It’s silly, he shouldn’t need a reply to know his orders to survey her haven’t changed. And he’s well versed in what being Darth Baras’s spy entails. Long hours with little reward or feedback. There’s no reason to expect this to be any different from his previous work.

This is simply… higher risk.

That’s not to imply that he’s conflicted about this, because he isn’t . Darth Baras has the good of the Empire in mind, and so logically, monitoring Gimrizh is just an extension of that. After all, this mission regarding Nomen Karr’s padawan is highly confidential, and despite her prowess in the field, she is a relatively young apprentice.

“Captain.” Gimrizh’s voice startles him out of his thoughts and he quickly lowers his datapad. She leans against the bridge entryway, hair mussed as though she’d been napping instead of meditating. “Any news?”

He checks the scan. “Not yet, my lord. Vette is working on repairing our shielding, but we’ve yet to locate the tracker itself.”

“Ah. Can I see?”

Stepping aside to let her get a closer look at the diagnostic, it occurs to him that of all the possible candidates Darth Baras could have asked him to spy on, Gimrizh is perhaps the easiest. He can’t question her loyalty, or her motives in protecting the Empire, and he can’t see that changing.

~*~

Tatooine is a dust bowl and Vette can’t stand the place.

It’s not the heat she hates, or the sand, or the overbearing twin suns. It’s the way the entire planet is crushed under the heel of the Hutts. For once, she can say that the Empire does little to make life on Tatooine worse, and as per the depressing usual the Republic does little to nothing to make it better. She’s only been to this planet once before. She and her gang had picked up a shipment of stolen Twi’lek jewels - they’d spent a total of two days planetside before blasting off to Ryloth and it had still been too long.

Even here, in a small Imperial-aligned spaceport, she can already begin to feel the creeping oppression of Tatooine try and get its claws into her.

And yet they still have work to do.

She silently hands a hydrospanner to Quinn as he opens up the hatch that’s hiding the annoying little tracker. Their scans had finally located it about two minutes before they pulled out of hyperspace. It seems to be stubborn as all get out too, given how the captain is determinedly not swearing as he rips the tracker from Horizon’s hull.

“We’ve got the bastard off,” she tells Gimrizh, shoving as much false cheer into her voice as she can.

Gimrizh takes the tracker from Quinn, holding it up to the spaceport light to squint at it. “Good work you two. I’d never have found this on my own.” She tucks the tracker into her belt. “I’ll be back shortly, I think, please have someone from the spaceport clean and restock Horizon while I’m gone.”

“Yes, my lord,” Quinn replies, saluting. Formal, much?

Attempt to resist rolling eyes: successful.

“We’ll keep the ship from burning down or exploding while you’re gone, boss lady!” Vette declares.

There’s something almost like a blush on Gimrizh’s cheeks, but it’s hard to say. Those tattoos of hers obscure a lot sometimes. “Also, if you could make sure we have more caf on board?”

“Of course.” The captain has more grace than Vette does when it comes to not calling Gimrizh out on her rapid caf consumption. “I’ll speak with the port authorities to find the nearest Imperial supply station. There should be one in Mos Ila, given the heavy Imperial presence on this side of Tatooine.”

“I’m sure there is,” she agrees. “And Vette? We can’t afford to piss off the Hutts.”

Vette recoils. When did she - She’s pretty sure she hasn’t talked a lot about how much she hates the Cartel, and she knows that she was pretty vocal about her like of Nar Shaddaa in fact. Is the frown on her face that noticeable?

Maybe Gimrizh is just a tad more perceptive sometimes than Vette gives her credit for.

She shakes it off and gives a very lazy, two fingered salute. “Sure thing. I can be super polite when I want to be.”

“With Hutts?”

"I can be hiding in the ship when I want to be,” Vette amends.

At least if she’s spending time onboard Horizon, or upgrading her blasters - or finishing her releasement forms - she won’t be stuck spending time rubbing shoulders with the Hutts.

Gimrizh gives a quick wave goodbye and then Vette leaves the captain to his whatever he’s doing, heading back into the Hutt-free comfort of Horizon. Flimsiwork has never sounded so appealing until now.

~*~

The two suns of Tatooine beat down on Draahg. Both suns have been high in the sky for an hour now, marking this as the hottest time of the day. Beads of sweat form on his forehead and he wipes them off with his gloved hand. At least his heavy durasteel armor has a cooling system installed under the metal plating, otherwise he’d roast. He can’t imagine having to fight without any armor and he can’t stand the idea of baking inside his protection like a forcedamned rookie.

Speaking of rookies…

Although he hadn’t exactly set a time for Korribanil to arrive, he’s still somewhat annoyed that she’s not here yet. He’s been waiting for hours.

The location he’d provided her is a small and secluded area, the end of a series of winding, maze-like gaps in the rocky spires that surround it, and perfect for an ambush. It isn’t difficult to imagine someone getting lost in here - hopefully not the Republic agent, or else they’re more of an idiot than Draahg thought. So far, none of the signs point towards it being a Jedi, so at least they have that bit of luck. It would be far more difficult - if not impossible - to trap a Jedi like this.

Draahg himself is perched a good fifty feet above the arranged location, lounging on a shelf jutting out of one of the many spires in the area. From below, he should be nearly invisible. Anyone trying to spot him would have to climb up to catch a glimpse of him. But looking down, he can spot anyone coming from a mile away.

From such a vantage point, he sees Korribanil approach a good ten minutes before she comes to a stop in the circle of sand beneath him.

She doesn’t so much as glance up at in his direction, only she is looking around, trying to catch sight of him. Can’t she sense his presence? Sure, he’s hiding it, but not so much that a half decent force user couldn’t spot him. How bad at sensing is she? He huffs. Baras must be getting desperate if he’s taking this.

When Draahg had heard that his master’s new apprentice was a Korribanil, of all things, he’d thought he must have misheard. Institute graduates are crappy enough on the best of days, and Korribanils are known for being particularly brutish. A natural consequence, as those with the highest midichlorian counts are sent to the Institutes on Korriban. Power, with none of the brains that those born to be Sith have.

The apprentice apparently gives up on finding Draahg and her body language settles. She stands still in the middle of the sandy clearing. Meditating maybe?

She’s shorter than he’d expected for a Zabrak, and far leaner too. From her species, he would have guessed a towering stature with a solid wall of muscle. She’s dressed in light armor too, no durasteel, no reinforced body armor - just cloth and synthleather, and barely any of the latter, at that. She doesn’t look like much of a fighter. What good will she be, and what was Baras thinking, making this his newest enforcer?

It doesn’t help that Draahg is still pissed over this new assignment.

One snap at Baras for keeping secrets, and he gets demoted to babysitting duty. This is a waste of his time, and he knows it, and Baras knows it, and that’s exactly why he’s being sent here to chaperone a forcedamned Korribanil.

Message fucking received, Draahg thinks.

He frowns down at Korribanil. Another one of the many mysteries surrounding Nomen Karr’s padawan. Why is Baras sending someone so utterly disposable after such an important playing piece? Is it because she’s disposable? Does Baras want someone who can be easily vanished after the deed is done? Sure, Draahg has no illusions about Baras caring for his apprentices, and he knows that if he ever becomes more of a liability than not he might very well find his head on a chopping block, but Baras doesn’t often pick up an apprentice with the express purpose of offing them after they’ve done their job.

Whatever is going on with this padawan is making his master obsessed. Paranoid, more so than usual.

This isn’t just Baras being pissed off at Nomen Karr, and it isn’t just him being scared by this padawan’s power. It’s got to be more than that. Draahg knows it, and the fact that prying into it sent him down to babysitting duty proves it.

He only has to wait about another twenty minutes before the Republic agent acts.

Perhaps the agent got tired of waiting for Korribanil to move, or maybe they figured that the tracker got removed and they should recover it - Draahg doesn’t really care. All he knows is that the agent is firstly an idiot, and secondly not a Jedi.

From his vantage point, he can see the agent approach Korribanil a good five minutes before she realizes anyone’s there. The agent is a man, possibly SIS, or something similar, and Bothan. Draahg leans forward ever so slightly to see a heavy rifle on the Bothan’s back and a Republic patch sewn onto his jacket.

Well now.

The Bothan is climbing one of the rock spires. Not as high as Draahg, just maybe a couple meters off the ground. Draahg traces a straight line from the Bothan’s sight to Korribanil and realizes that the pub is lining up a shot. That thought is only further confirmed as the Bothan sets his rifle into a sniper configuration and props it against the rock, leaning down and staring down the scope at Korribanil.

Draahg sits back, props his chin on his hand, and watches.

Baras never told him to keep her alive.

On one hand, if Korribanil bites the bolt here, then Baras will have to find another pawn on his hunt for the padawan, and it might reveal more of his plan to Draahg. One the other… Draahg doesn’t particularly want to risk pissing off Baras any further. And if he knows that Baras is using her as a hammer to whack Nomen Karr, then he can keep a better eye on her. If he gets her killed, Baras might not keep him in the loop regarding whoever ends up taking her place.

The Bothan’s finger ghosts over the trigger.

Ah, it’d be a pain to get on Baras’s bad side just because he thinks this Korribanil woman is a waste of space. Draahg stands up, preparing to jump down and just stab the pub, getting it over with.

The Bothan fires.

Damn it, he’s too slow.

Movement flashes before his eyes. Draahg falls and hits the ground behind the pub, his lightsaber ignited and ready to at least gut the Bothan for killing Korribanil -

A red lightsaber is pointed between his eyes.

The Bothan’s head hits the floor. A second later, so does his body.

What.

“Sorry,” Korribanil says, lowering her lightsaber so that it’s no longer threatening to behead Draahg and deactivating the blade. “I wasn’t sure when you were planning on showing up, so I figured it would be better to deal with the Republic agent in a swift manner.”

That shouldn’t have been possible - how had she moved almost twenty meters in a couple of seconds -

The force can enhance one’s body, push it past any natural limitations. Draahg knows that much. This sort of raw speed however - he’s never seen anything like it. Not on anyone lower ranked than a Darth, and certainly not on an apprentice who’s only been in the field for a couple months. And she had barely even blinked, as though she hadn’t just dashed across the clearing and cut off an enemy’s head. He almost hates her for exceeding his expectations.

“No worries,” he tells her. He has a feeling he’s going to be seeing more of her, and it’d be better to play at being her friend. That’s what Baras would order him to do, anyways.

She clips her lightsaber back onto her belt and bends down to examine the corpse. “SIS?”

“I don’t think so.” Now that the initial shock has faded, it’s easy for Draahg to slip back into work mode. He kneels next her, keeping one eye on her and one eye on the dead man. “SIS doesn’t really take orders from the Jedi, not like this. And he was sloppier than any SIS agent I’ve encountered. A real SIS agent wouldn’t have tried to take the shot - they’d have kept to reconnaissance and probably called for backup when they realized they were dealing with a Sith.”

Korribanil fishes a series of ID tags out from under the headless body’s shirt. She scans the information on them before tossing them to Draahg. “Whoever he was, he was definitely Republic.”

The ID number is unmistakably a Republic serial. If the patch on the man’s jacket hadn’t already told them that, this would. “Personal, maybe. I’d put my money on him being a friend of Nomen Karr, or something like that.”

She hums in agreement. “Do you think this was sanctioned?”

“Probably. The Jedi Order likely gave this the okay. Officially? No, because they’re a bunch of cowards and don’t want to restart the war.”

“Sounds about right.”

Even though it seems like they won’t be able to get pissy with the Republic about sending an agent after a Sith - the Republic will just claim the guy was doing this independently - Draahg still makes sure to record the ID number. It could lead back to Nomen Karr, although he’s not going to bet credits on it.

Korribanil tenses up. “His holo is ringing.”

“Oh?” Draahg raises an eyebrow and steps back, gesturing for her to take over. She has sufficiently piqued his curiosity - he wants to see how she handles this. “You killed him, the honor is yours.”

She cautiously digs through the Bothan’s pockets until she uncovers a slightly vibrating holo communicator. With one last glance at Draahg, she accepts the call.

The comm lights up. A dignified human man stands in the holo beam, hands clasped behind his back and posture parade-ground perfect. "Hello," he says in a calm steady voice, "You must be Baras' most recent apprentice."

"And you must be Nomen Karr, yes?" Korribanil says, "As I understand it, you've been keeping an eye on me for a while."

He doesn't even try to deny it. Damn, if only they were recording this, they could wave it over the Republic’s head, or toss it into the pile of things that the diplomats get to yell about. All those small breaches of the Treaty should really start to add up. "Yes, do forgive my rudeness. Me and Baras have a habit of keeping tabs on each other so when I heard he gained another apprentice I had you traced.”

“Actually, I won’t forgive it, sorry,” Korribanil replies cooly. “Let me plant a tracker on you and then I think we can call it even.”

“I’m afraid not. If you really want to keep score, you have just killed one of my oldest friends in the Republic military.” There’s not even regret on Karr’s face. Or sorrow. Jedi wouldn’t know an emotion if it slapped them in the face. "I know what you and your master are doing. I know that you are being sent to eliminate his spies before I can expose them to the Jedi Council. Soon, I'll have the proof I need. Baras' spies can't hide forever."

"That would be proof given by your most elusive apprentice, would it?" Korribanil says slowly.

"Ah," he sighs, "You know more than I thought. It's unfortunate, but I've kept her secret well. You and your master are merely feeling your way in the dark. My padawan is of supreme importance to both me and the Jedi order. I won't let harm come to her."

So the padawan is a woman then? Thank you for that, Karr.

"So judgemental and you don't even know me," she taunts.

He gives her a sad look, like a disappointed teacher to a lying student. "In the grand scheme of things, you are unimportant. Baras has always found attack dogs in the Sith Order, and I won't let him unleash you upon my padawan."

"So protective. Do you care about her, Nomen Karr?" she asks.

"Care is a weakness. The dark side will find no purchase in me," he informs her solemnly, "But I must thank you. This experience has given me valuable insight. I will be ready for you next time."

"No one else has to die."

Draahg’s eyes narrow at Korribanil. She’s probably just saying that to get inside Karr’s head, but it carries a faint whisper of cowardice.

"If only that were true," Karr replies, "I will do everything in my power to keep my padawan hidden from you."

He has an awful lot of confidence in his ability to protect this apprentice. How long will that last with Baras after her? Does Karr know just how obsessed Baras is with this padawan?

"If you won’t stand down, then I suppose we’re at odds."

Karr shakes his head, "Don't try and play the victim. Your service to the dark side determined our relationship long before we ever met."

The call dies before Korribanil can make her reply to that.

“Interesting,” Draahg says. “At least now we know the padawan is a woman. And that Karr underestimates our ability to find her.”

“He might underestimate us, but not Baras,” she points out.

He shrugs. “Either way, it was a useful conversation. I must report back to our master, but I should give you some advice on your mission before I go.”

Korribanil snaps to attention. “I’m ready.”

“Baras will brief you himself once you’re in a secure location,” Draahg explains. “For now, you should be aware that you’ll be working with one of his agents, a woman named Sharack Breev. Honestly, she’s at least a little insane. I’ve had to work with her before, and I can’t stand her strange mannerisms. She’s also rather cowardly when it comes down to it, so you can’t rely on her in a fight.”

She nods. “That’s fine. I have my own crew capable of providing combat support, and I trust them to have my back.”

Baras did say that he was keeping his own tabs on Korribanil. Did he get one of her crew to plant listening devices on the ship? Draahg thinks one of the crew is a Twi’lek slave, and he doubts it would have been difficult for Baras to slip the slave some money in exchange for a few bugs around his apprentice.

“Good,” Draahg replies, forcing a bit of a smile onto his face. “Then you should be fine here. Head back to the spaceport and wait for Baras to contact you.”

Korribanil bows neatly at the waist. “Thank you for your advice, and your assistance in this mission.”

He watches her go with a confused frown twisting his brow. It’s strange, he’d never expected a Korribanil, of all things, to become Baras’s apprentice, but now that he’s seen her in action he thinks he can understand his master’s decision. Get a powerful playing piece that’s skilled in combat - and only combat. She’ll make an excellent tool until she’s finished hunting down Karr’s padawan.

~*~

Gimrizh gratefully returns to Horizon to camp down for the evening, get a good night’s sleep in her own bed, and contact her master. One of those is far less enjoyable a prospect.

Vette begs some money off of her and heads into the markets dotting Mos Ila to shop for what she claims are necessities, and Quinn starts working on tuning up the shields and getting rid of the minor cosmetic damage to the ship's hull that was incurred when they removed the tracker. She takes a brief sonic shower to get rid of the sand of Tatooine that has accumulated on her clothing and then she calls Baras.

"Master," she greets him as he steps into the holo’s view, head bowed respectfully. "I have taken care of the Republic agent tracking me."

Baras seems pleased by this, for all that she can tell beneath his mask. “Good, good. And how did you work with Draahg?"

“It was a short mission, but I believe we work well together,” she replies. “I also spoke with Nomen Karr over the dead agent’s holo. He knows that we are after his apprentice and claims that he will do whatever it takes to stop us from reaching her. It appears that he has some level of care for her. Perhaps we can exploit that?"

"Perhaps," he says noncommittally, "Regardless, there is no time to waste. We have two tidbits of information on his mystery apprentice; that she was trained on Tatooine and found by Nomen Karr on Alderaan. I have agents on both worlds with orders to begin tracking her down. Find out whatever you can about this girl. Find the people who are close to her. Someone means enough to to her to bring her out of hiding. Her training is incomplete and she is susceptible. The anguish we cause her will draw her out and then we can kill her and Nomen Karr."

So they are going to destroy this apprentice from the inside out. Break her before killing her. But if she is young and untrained and as Baras says, susceptible, then couldn't their actions cause her to fall to the dark side instead? She doesn’t suggest it. Baras has likely already thought of it and decided against it.

"While you are hunting the apprentice, keep an eye out for the master," Baras continues, "You have yet to face a Jedi Master. Their righteous and passionless demeanor is nauseating and Nomen Karr is no ordinary master. Confronting him, you will gain profound fortitude and hate or you will falter."

"I have no intention of confronting Karr," she assures him.

"Then hunt down his padawan, discover her identity, and destroy her." Baras orders, "Your task on Tatooine is simple. Karr's padawan trained there under the Jedi Master Yonlach."

The name rings a bell. "I've heard of a Master Yonlach before."

He nods. "He was a powerful and renowned Jedi teacher despite his old age. Years ago I urged the Dark Council to hunt him down but to no avail, and he went into hiding on Tatooine. Yonlach has been busy in his exile - he brought the padawan’s powers into expression. Now they share a close bond, if you ruin Yonlach, the padawan will feel the effects of it no matter how far away she is."

"Understood," she replies, "Draahg informed me that my contact here will be Sharack Breev. Am I to meet with her somewhere?”

She will contact you.”

She bows obediently, "As you say, master."

"That is all," he says dismissively. He turns around and with a sweep of his robes he vanishes as the call goes out.

Gimrizh lets out a deep breath. She leans against the holo and runs a hand through her hair tiredly.

Whatever battle she may eventually have against Nomen Karr is a long while off and that does give her time to train and prepare. But that time also gives him the same advantage. If Baras hasn't managed to defeat Nomen Karr yet what chance does she have? Maybe that's what Baras wants. Send her off to take out this apprentice and then conveniently be tidied up, leaving Baras to finish off Karr and claim all the credit.

"Hm, you look deep in thought," Vette interrupts, waltzing back into the central room, carrying a number of bags, "Did you get done talking to his pudginess?"

Gimrizh pulls herself off the holo and goes to join her. "Don’t call him that,” she comments absently, “And you look like you spent every credit of your new salary. I'll assume you were productive?"

Vette flashes her a grin and shoves a bag into her hands, "I bought gifts! That's yours. I got some nice food for the kitchen" She pauses to sort through the bags and shakes one fondly. "This one's mine. Blaster parts, mostly."

"You got me a... gift," Gimrizh asks, unsure if she heard correctly.

"Of course," Vette replies, "Open it!"

She opens the bag and peers inside. It’s bright. Atrociously so. Does Tatooine even sell things that come in such… neon colors? She takes another glance at the brightly colored bundles of fabric inside the bag. “Are these… clothes?”

"Well you always seem to get yours ruined," Vette explains, "And you have atrocious fashion sense. Everything you wear is black, grey, or brown. I got you some colors. I think you'd look good in silver, so I got some of that, and also red, but I thought that was a bit obviously Sith so I got you pink instead."

Gimrizh has never owned a single pink thing in her entire life. She isn't sure she wants to start now.

“Thank you.”

"You're welcome!" Vette beams at her, "Now, where's captain stuffy, I got him things too?"

Gimrizh has a very bad feeling about this, "The engine room, fixing the shields. Please be nice, Vette," she begs, although it may be too late.

Vette drops half the bags on the couch and makes her way merrily to the engine room, Gimrizh following at her heels, "I'm mostly not horrible. But I was actually nice this time, so suck it."

Quinn is elbows deep in engine parts when they get there, and there's some sort of computer program downloading onto the engine's terminal.

"Hey!" Vette calls out over the whirr of the engine and saunters over, "I got you something."

Quinn stops whatever he's doing in time to catch the small box she lobs at his head. When he turns toward them, Gimrizh notices that for once he isn’t wearing gloves. His hands are smeared with engine grease as if in defiance of his usually pristine appearance, and his uniform jacket has been rolled up to his elbows. The muscle in his forearms flex slightly as he rotates the box in his hands, something about the movement accentuating his wrists in a way that is far more distracting than it should be.  It’s more skin than he’s shown in the entire time she’s known him, and she shouldn’t be staring, but she can’t stop herself. Eventually she has to force herself to blink.

"Alderaanian herbal tea?" Quinn asks, a confused pinch furrowing his brow.

Vette shrugs, "You strike me as a fancy tea sort of guy."

That's not as bad as Gimrizh was expecting. Although given how quickly Vette had found a cocktail that she loves, it makes sense that Vette would be able to guess what Quinn likes to drink. Vette could probably find a personalized beverage for anyone if she put her mind to it.

"That's... astute of you," Quinn comments, putting the box down and picking up the hydro spanner again. "You have my thanks."

"I always know people's tastes," Vette says, winking suggestively at Gimrizh. For… some reason.

She leaves Vette to be… well… Vette, and wanders over to try and see what Quinn's doing to the engine. Whatever it is seems to involve a mess of wires, but she can't tell what's what for the life of her. "How are the shields doing?"

"Oh, the shields are fully functional, my lord," he informs her and unscrews a heavy bolt from some clunky engine part. "They just needed to be recharged and have the generator restarted. I'm currently modifying the ship's sublight engines to - "

"You're doing what?" Vette demands, clearly outraged.

He frowns at her. "I'm modifying the sublight engines to increase our overall speed."

Vette gapes at him. "But those engines are a thing of pure beauty- they're gorgeous and perfect- they have a delicate balance - You'll ruin them!" She flies over in a vengeful fury to peer inside the engine and see what he’s doing, “What are you doing? That’s the secondary ignition. We need that!”

“I’m not doing anything to the ignition,” Quinn informs her, giving her a look like maybe she isn’t completely stupid, “I’m removing the fifth filter.”

“That’s important too!” Vette seems to be both panicking and tremendously angry at the same time. It’s actually an impressive combo, Gimrizh thinks, considering how not much seems to shake Vette’s cool outer veneer. “You can’t just get rid of pieces, not in a top of the line, high quality, downright beautiful machine like this one. I brought you tea and now you’re going to betray me like this?”

Quinn calmly removes some metal cylinder and places it in Vette’s shocked hands. “It’s superfluous,” he gestures to whatever it is he’s doing in the engine, “If you switch both lines to the port pinlock, the extra filter becomes unnecessary. Leaving it in slows down the engine.”

Very very slowly, Vette deflates as the anger in her cools. She takes another long, considering look at the engine’s insides and then again at the piece she’s holding in her hand. Gimrizh on the other hand, just leans against the engine room wall and tries not to stare at the self-satisfied expression on Quinn’s face or the smug glint in his piercing blue eyes.

Vette glares suspiciously at him and then crosses her arms. “Alright,” she says at last, “Fine.”

“Great,” Gimrizh cuts in, because there is actual work that needs to be done and she has a sudden desire for fresh air. Even the heat of Tatooine seems tepid to her at the moment. “Let’s get back to work then, shall we?”

“Of course, my lord,” Quinn replies.

The only response she gets from Vette is a vague wave. Good enough.

She doesn’t bother to take off her lightsaber belt before she heads down Horizon’s gangplank and into the spaceport.

It’s not quite fresh air, but there’s more of a breeze than just the air con in the ship. Various members of the spaceport staff are bustling around, checking the power feed from the spaceport into Horizon’s power cells. In the entrance high above her head, she can hear the roar of an old cargo ship taking off. A second after, there’s the rush of displaced air from the ship’s movement.

The spaceport at Mos Ila isn’t as crowded as she’s used to, not after Nar Shaddaa and Drumond Kaas. Mostly looks like farmers coming in to pick up shipments, the odd dozen smugglers, a suspicious looking Devaronian, a couple of gun wielding mercenaries. It’s pretty standard fare for an outer rim world.
The desert sand is quite pervasive, even inside it manages to blow in and collect in corners. No wonder people don’t seem to like Tatooine.

“Good afternoon.”

Gimrizh whips her head around so fast she feels something in her neck crack.

It’s a woman, with sun darkened skin, short white hair, and a variety of strange jewelry dangling from her ears. The woman’s dressed for a trek through the desert and is carrying a short electro-staff on her back, the sort of thing that would be more useful against sand people and violent animals than in a duel.

Gimrizh tries to smile at her. “Hello,”

A strange open smile comes over her face. “Hello, honored Apprentice Gimrizh,” she says as an introduction, “I am Sharack Breev. The harsh sands of Tatooine welcome you. Our lord and master Darth Baras bid me to impart my knowledge of this planet and help you track down the Jedi Master Yonlach.”

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Gimrizh replies hesitantly.

“It is good to see you with my eyes as well,” Sharack says, “I will be your compass through the desert. You will find Yonlach by reliving the path that was walked by Nomen Karr’s padawan.”

That might take a while. The padawan was on Tatooine for what - a year? Perhaps more? “I’ll assume you have a lead?”

“I found their path,” Sharack confirms with a nod.

Is that… it? “And where does that path lead?”

Sharack takes a single step back and to the side, gesturing out the spaceport doors. “Would you like to find out?”

~*~

Malavai officially dislikes Tatooine.

While it goes against his best interests to agree with Vette, in this case he simply can’t deny that Tatooine is one the worst parts of the galaxy.

He and Lord Gimrizh have been following Breev for almost seven hours now, and the guide has insisted that they are not to use a speeder or any other method of transportation. This is ridiculous. While Breev might be fine traversing the desert in this manner, neither he nor Gimrizh can keep up this pace and although they’ve been traveling through the night, Tatoo One is going to rise in twenty minutes. He can’t speak for Breev, but the both of them will fall ill from heatstroke if they travel through the hottest parts of the day.

To make the entire endeavour more irritating, Breev still has not deigned  to reveal their destination.

“We’re approaching the end of this particular journey,” Breev says when they stop for a short break under a rocky awning.

Malavai bends down to take his boots off and dump out the sand that has slowly accumulated in them. At least there hasn’t been particularly heavy wind - otherwise he would be picking sand out of his uniform for a month afterwards. A scant few inches away is Gimrizh, leaning against the rock cliff and taking measured sips from a canteen.

“Are you alright, my lord?” he asks, noticing the way she’s practically huddling around the canteen.

“Fine,” she replies quickly. “The cold isn’t so bad, I’m just… not looking forward to the coming heat. And I’m exhausted.”

He wonders how the deserts of Korriban compare to here. Korriban is cold all year round, at all hours of the day, not the dichotomy between freezing nights and boiling days that Tatooine is. “If there is anything I can do to help…”

“No no.” She waves him off without letting go of the water. “I’ll be fine.” She turns and, louder this time, speaks to Breev. “How much further?”

Breev waits a moment as she stares out at the desert rock formations around them. “Perhaps a few more minutes, or longer, if the storm comes. But we are close.”

That doesn’t bode well. “A storm?” Malavai asks.

She nods, cupping her hand around her ear as though listening intently to something. “Yes. You can hear it coming in the way the wind blows across the rocks.”

The air outside is still. The only noise for miles has been the sound of nighttime animals rustling through the sand. He glances over at Gimrizh, who just shrugs with a slightly confused frown twisting her lips.

Gimrizh tucks her canteen back into one of the pouches on her belt. “If we’re close, then let’s get to wherever it is before the suns begin to rise.”

They head back out into the desert.

Breev guides them through a valley. The red rock of the desert surrounding them is a deep purple, tinted by the night sky, and the sand beneath their feet shifts with every step Malavai takes. The eerie silence doesn’t help ease his anxiety, nor does an absent comment Breev makes about womp rats. From the way Gimrizh keeps glancing nervously around her, he isn’t the only one concerned.

In the distance, he can hear something resembling a scream echo through the rock.

“Tusken war cry,” Breev confirms. “We’re in the right place.”

How can that possibly be a good sign? Malavai normally doesn’t question Darth Baras’s agents - he is one of them himself after all - but this woman seems particularly off. She must be excellent at her job, or else he doesn’t think Baras would have kept her around for very long. That, or it’s difficult to find agents willing to work on Tatooine.

“We’re going towards the Tusken raiders?” Gimrizh demands, her jaw hanging open. “Thank you, Sharack, but I have no desire to get mobbed by a bunch of insane raiders today.”

“We’re not getting that close yet.” Breev pulls to a stop in front of a cave entrance that slopes down into the sand and stone. She bows to Gimrizh and ushers her inside. “This is where the padawan journeyed. A forbidden lair of one of the most ancient beasts that roam the desert. A sand demon.”

A demon? Malavai doesn’t know much about the fauna native to Tatooine, but he presumes that calling a demon might be a bit of an exaggeration. Likely it’s just an oversized, vicious creature, but nothing truly demonic. He can’t say that for sure, given that he isn’t an expert on Tatooine wildlife.

Gimrizh stares into the dark. “Did the apprentice kill the beast?”

“No,” and Sharack looks so intrigued by the mystery of it all as she speaks, “The padawan left her weapons and entered alone. Impossibly, she returned unscathed. That demon is the fiercest thing on this planet. I investigated further, and found that the beast was still there, also undamaged, and, most perplexingly, it’s skin was glistening.”

“Blood?” Gimrizh asks, crossing her arms.

Sharack just shrugs. “I couldn’t say. What happened in that cave is a mystery to me.”

“Is there anything else you know?”

“The padawan went through the Tusken village. She went in safely, and exited safely. And she too, was glistening.”

What did the Tuskens have to gain by allowing the padawan safe passage? Or perhaps, if this substance is blood as Lord Gimrizh suggests, the Tuskens were instead afraid of the padawan. Almost as if it were a sort of primitive war paint. Although that still leaves the question of how the padawan achieved that without damaging this beast at all.

Malavai wishes that they had clearer information. There are so many possibilities here. “My lord, it might be prudent to return to Mos Ila and retrieve a reconnaissance droid. The Tuskens would destroy it, but a glimpse of their camp could help plan this better.”

“I don’t think we have that sort of time,” she replies. One of her teeth flashes in the dark as she bites on her lower lip. “This might be an older trail we’re following, but we need to keep in mind that our time to find Yonlach is limited, and that the longer we take the more time the padawan has to destroy Baras’s spy network.”

“Ah.” He knows that’s the case but still… “As you say, my lord.”

She reaches up to rest her hand on his shoulder, just for the briefest moment. Even through her fingerless gloves, he can feel the warmth of her palm scorch him like fire, a deeper heat than the suns of this planet. “No need to be so formal, captain. It’s a good idea, and if we did have more time, I would agree with you.”

When she removes her hand, the heat remains for a long minute after.

Breev is still standing by the entrance, waiting for them to enter. “I can’t go in myself - if it came down to a fight I would only slow you down, Apprentice Gimrizh.”

“Not to worry, I’m certain I and my captain can handle this.” She strides past Breev and into the cave before pausing. “Please wait for us out here. After all, I don’t think we’d be able to return to Mos Ila on our own.”

Malavai follows her into the dark.

Two meters in, he has to stop and light a flare. It’s pitch black in here without the bright white light, and they will have enough troubles shortly without adding running into a wall, or worse, getting lost.

The new light reflects off the moisture that clings to the rocky cavern walls, some mix of condensation and a slime-like substance he doesn’t want to think too heavily about. The air becomes damper as well, more humid. Tatooine has few natural underground water reservoirs left, but perhaps this cave system sits on top a remaining one. It would explain how it’s become home to whatever creature inhabits this place.

“How did the padawan do it?” Gimrizh grumbles as they steadily walk down. “Voluntarily living in a desert.”

“You dislike deserts?”

“They’re too - too empty.”

If only. Tatooine is far from empty, when one considers the deadly fauna that stalk the deserts, or the the towering rock formations, or the Tusken raiders, or the numerous plants, to name only a few of the planet’s problems. He supposes his opinion might change if they are unfortunate enough to have to trek through areas like the Dune Sea, however.

Gimrizh slows, taking more careful and measured footsteps down into the cave. “Can you hear that?”

Despite practically straining his ears from effort, he can hear nothing more than their own voices and the occasional plink as a droplet of water drops down from the cave ceiling. “No.”

“Hm. Maybe I’m not hearing…”

She trails off, staring into the darkness with a single minded focus. With just the white light of their flare, her golden eyes seem to glow. Just looking at her makes Malavai’s breath get caught in his chest and he cannot imagine having to be on the receiving end of her gaze when she is like this. It’s not the cold anger of a glare, nothing so simple. She is just sheer intensity.

“I think I’m sensing it instead,” she says at last. “I thought I could hear it, because I’m usually such a shit sensor, but it must be through the force. It feels like - like something breathing under the sands. Sleeping, perhaps?”

“Perhaps whatever ‘demon’ of sorts this is hibernates,” he speculates. “Although I can’t guess as to why you would sense it through the force.”

“I’ve heard that sometimes, when something or someone powerful remains in one place for a long time - decades, if not more - they can leave an imprint in the force.”

They’re almost at the end of the tunnel now, the flare illuminating a gaping opening in the stone. Beyond seems to be a large enclosure, empty, nothing on the ground but sand. At Gimrizh’s signal, Malavai tosses the flare in. It lands in a corner of the chamber and continues to burn peacefully in the dirt.

Something beneath the sand clicks.

It’s almost insectoid, like pincers, but muffled by the ground.

“Well.” Gimrizh tugs on her short hair nervously. “That’s ominous.”

“I doubt sand demons are overly fond of subtlety, my lord.”

She snickers. “True.”

Their first steps into the cavern are hesitant, with her taking point and him covering her back, his hand resting over his blaster.

As soon as she steps into the center, the sand moves.

Something massive hauls itself out of the ground and looms above Gimrizh. It’s shelled, multi-legged, almost resembling an ackalay, with giant pincers that are clicking furiously at them as it advances.

Gimrizh throws out her hand. “Stop!”

And, to Malavai’s amazement, it does.

It’s head tilts, large glinting eyes staring blindly at her. There’s still the clicking, but it’s more… curious, perhaps? Investigating, rather than threatening.

She slowly holds up her second hand. Is that to reassert herself or to show the creature she isn’t reaching for a weapon - or both? One of the creatures spindly legs skitters backwards as it examines her.

“That’s it,” Gimrizh says carefully, talking more to herself than to the creature, which likely only understands tone and body language instead of actual words. “That’s it,” she repeats. She licks her lips, and when she speaks again her voice is slightly sweeter than before, though no less assertive. “There’s no need to fight. Just do whatever you did with the padawan, and I can let you live.”

It tilts forward, as if smelling her.

“My lord - “

“It’s fine. Don’t try to shoot.”

The creature gives one last curious look and then it’s shell starts to turn white.

As they watch, it sheds it old shell, leaving the semi-transparent remnant to lie on the sands before burrowing into the ground with a disgusting squelch. Once it’s vacated the shell, a dark, foul smelling fluid begins to ooze out, covering Gimrizh’s boots.

She grimaces, and then bends down. She dips her fingers in the muck, painting lines across her face and uncovered upper arms. “This had better work. I smell horrid.”

“Should I do the same?” Malavai asks, sincerely hoping that she’ll say no.

“Just one of us should be fine. Unless you want this crap on you.”

“... Not particularly, my lord.”

~*~

Gimrizh lies on her back and stares up at the night sky.

They’re on the edge of the desert, approaching the Dune Sea. The sand stretches out before her until it vanishes into the horizon, the edges of the world turning purple from the last rays of the setting suns. Above her, stars blink through the clouds. In her mind’s eye, she traces the line of stars that makes up the Death Wind Corridor and tries to focus on that to block out the fact that a chill night wind has started to blow, buffered by the rocks around them, whipping up fine grains of sand a couple centimeters above the ground.

During the heat of the daytime hours, she can at least grab onto the overbearing swelter of the suns. When the desert is this cold it can be difficult to remember that she is not on Korriban anymore.

“Breev has gone to scout ahead, my lord,” Quinn informs her. He must be getting used to working with her - he only pauses for one brief confused moment at the sight of her sprawled out in the sand. “She mentioned returning in a few hours, so if you like, there’s plenty of time for you to get some sleep.”

“Hm.” That doesn’t sound like a good idea. “What about you? I can keep watch if you need rest.”

“Thank you, but I’ll be fine.”

For a while, there’s nothing beyond the sound of the wind and the distant calls of nighttime predators. She scratches absently at the blood that’s dried to her face, tacky and flaking in some places. Stars, she can’t wait to return to an Imperial outpost, or Horizon, or anywhere with a sonic shower.

Then the sand shifts, and he sits down beside her, awkward and hesitant.

“I apologize if this is out of turn, but I wanted to say -” He pauses to clear his throat, “Your performance in the field continues to be outstanding. And while I know my opinion matters little to a Sith, I find you constantly impress me at every turn.”

What? She hasn’t been expecting this. “My performance? I didn’t even fight - the Tuskens let us pass with ease.”

“Against the creature,” he clarifies, “I didn’t even consider the likelihood that the Tuskens would know if the creature was dead and would thus refuse to let us pass.”

“That - I didn’t think of that.”

He stumbles over two just barely started and then hastily canceled sentences. “Then may I ask what your reasoning was? Not - I’m not questioning your decision, my lord, I still agree that it was the correct one under the circumstances, I’m simply curious.”

It takes her a moment to turn her answer over in her head. She knows why she did it, she’s simply trying to find the best way to explain the raw concept. “To know the padawan. I was often taught that the best way to track an enemy is to get into their head, to know who they are and why they are that way. If you don’t know them, you can’t predict their next move.”

“A sound philosophy.”

“Thank you. I don’t know if it will work, but when I confronted the creature I thought it would be at least worth a try.” She laughs bitterly, “It’s not as though I’m thrilled to try and think like some Jedi.”

Out of the corner of her vision, she can see Quinn’s eyes narrow to glare at the sand. “A detestable prospect indeed.”

“Ah? I suppose you also don’t particularly care for the Jedi,” she says.

“Not particularly, no,” he vehemently replies. “I am a loyal servant of the Empire - I would never.”

When she looks, Quinn’s shoulders are stiff and his gloved hands are curled into fists at his side. He had sounded so - it sounded personal. More than simply because he is an Imperial, it was harsher than that, deeper than that. She opens her mouth to ask and then shuts it. The last time she had pried, he’d been quite clear that while she is free to peruse his personnel file, he isn’t willing to offer further information.

Not that she can blame him for that.

There are things in Gimrizh’s past that aren’t on her files. Things she’s so - so -

They shouldn’t come to light. Not again. So she’d buried them.

Some things have to be that way. Memories that need to be packed into small boxes and not touched, or written down on files that no one ever need access. She understands that very well. Just as she doesn’t want Quinn to pry into certain aspects of her past on Korriban, she understands that he might not want her to pry into anything concerning his past. If it ever actually becomes an issue, she can either read his file, or she can trust in his professionalism enough to know that he would tell her.

A yawn battles its way past her tightly shut jaw.

Quinn’s glare vanishes as he turns back to her. “You should really get some sleep. I imagine we have a long day ahead of us.”

She tries for a lighthearted - “Is that the medic’s order?”

“It’s the medic’s recommendation,” he corrects.

“Alright,” she agrees, somewhat reluctantly. “I’ll wake you in an hour for second watch.”

She rolls onto her side, tucking her legs close to her chest and trying to curl into a ball. The sand gently rolls against her.

The hour of sleep she gets is poor. Behind her closed eyes, old tomb entrances emerge from the Tatooine landscape. Biting cold winds and a growing sandstorm chase her back into Institute Five’s dormitory. An overseer kicks her legs out from under her, and she falls, backwards and panicking into the sand as someone yells at her to get back up.

When she wakes, it is fleeing from green hair and a scream.

~*~

Vette swaggers down the dusty and bustling streets of Mos Ila.

The calls of vendors join the cacophony of noise caused by hundreds, if not thousands of busy shoppers. Mostly food, dried goods that won’t go bad in the desert heat or rare fresh products that have been marked up two or three times in price and are preserved in conservator buckets under tables. The rest is odds and ends, blasters, farming equipment, ship supplies. Some are selling animals, or even used speeders.

Her stomach twists painfully when she sees fliers advertising slave markets. She hates Tatooine, she hates the Cartel, and she hates not being able to do anything about either.

It’s a welcome distraction when her holo buzzes and she has to step into a quiet alley off the main road.

“Sup?” she asks as Gimrizh’s blurry blue form appears.

Is Gimrizh wearing standard Imperial issue pajamas? She is. The grey t-shirt is at least two sizes too big for her and hangs off her torso like a bedsheet. “I’m just holoing to give you an update on our progress.”

“Well, you have been gone for over a week now, I’d hope there would be some progress.”

“Sort of. We have our next destination - recovered from a Tusken raider camp. Unfortunately, we’re waiting at an Imperial Outpost while our guide scouts ahead. As much as I’m eager to get going, I have to admit that neither me nor the captain know our way through the desert, and if we get lost it’s very likely that we could die.”

Sounds pleasant. “So where you headed next?”

“Some place called Desert Wound Ravine.”

“Cheery.”

Gimrizh tilts her head in agreement. “Again - why we’re stuck waiting for our scout to report back on any potential death traps.”

“Right. So how much longer do you think you’ll be on mission?”

“Another week at least, probably longer. I’m sorry for the delay. You won’t be too bored, I trust?”

“Nah. I’m sure I can think of something to keep me occupied.”

They both say goodbye before Vette closes the call. Another week, huh? If not more. She hates being stuck here for so long, but if it’s unavoidable, she can at least, perhaps, get some work done. And not the sort of work that Gimrizh and captain stuffy are doing.

She tucks her holo into her pocket and heads back towards the main street. Even though it’s early morning, she feels as though she needs to hit up a cantina.

As she strolls through the streets, this time her eye is filtering out anything besides such establishments. She watches the signs as well, the logos and emblems splattered over the sandstone buildings, the posters tacked to the windows. They run through her head - dancing naked woman, dancing naked man, weird bottle, weirder bottle -

A star surrounded by a broken circle.

Bingo.

She saunters on in through the front door, trying to use her body language to match those of the occupants inside. Standard run of the mill spacers, mostly. A few Imperial NCOs, one passed out moisture farmer in the corner, and a man in a silk outfit looking very uncomfortable. She goes for an air of confidence, but not outstandingly so. Just enough to make people not question her.

The bartender is unfamiliar to her, but she trusts what she knows. She orders a Ryloth sunset, with three additional shots of the fifth bottle from the right, despite it being a disgusting combination, and tips the Twi’lek playing the Gasan string drum in the corner who’s singing about Jawas.

Then she takes her drink back to her table, and waits.

It takes a good half hour, during which time most of the bar has turned over and new customers have entered. The jukebox is being run ragged by a bunch of human teenagers. The Twi’lek, playing alone while no one really pays attention to him, has changed his tune ten times but not his lyrics.

Finally, a petite human comes over to Vette’s table and plonks down with a shot of whiskey in her hand. “So, where you headed, stranger?”

Vette shrugs. “Eh. Wherever the wind takes me.”

The woman levels her with a suspicious once-over. Then she stands back up. “Better pay your tab then.”

When she leaves, Vette follows.

She’s led to a back room, a tiny office with a small computer terminal and shipment records that have actually been written out on flimsi, old-school style. Harder to track that way. The room smells like old spice, and under that, the faint whiff of rotten meat. It’s probably actual meat, used to trick any animals the Cartel brings out to sniff for people.

The woman sits down in the only chair and crosses her legs. “You don’t look like you’re running, and I haven’t heard anything about anyone coming from Nar Shaddaa lately. And to be honest, we don’t really have any kind of contact with that section of Hutt space, and really not many people come here from Kessel. I’m a little… confused. So what can I do for you?”

Nar Shaddaa is the third stop on the Kessel trail, while Tatooine is the fifth stop on the same trail. Three shots, fifth bottle. Vette might barely know how things work on Tatooine, given how disorganized everything is, but that’s pretty universal as far as codes go. Especially given that cantinas tend to be info hubs. Not by design, really. Nothing they do has much design. It’s just that the heavy traffic of people allows for an easy flow of information.

“Actually, I’m looking to do something for you,” she admits. “I’m with an Imperial crew - Sith credentials - and figured I would lend my services while I’m in town and the rest of my imp friends are off doing their own thing.”

The woman raises one pitch black eyebrow. “Imperials?”

“Boss is a Zabrak.” Not that Gimrizh is actually part of this, but it’s true, and the particulars of her situation would take a while to explain.

“Ah. What can you do for us then?”

“I’m a jack of all trades sort of slicer,” Vette starts. “Good with blasters - but I won’t whack people for anything or anyone. And I’ve got a Sith’s ship sitting in the spaceport under Imperial protection.”

The woman nods along slowly, thoughtfully. “Not going to lie to you, we’ve got a bunch of panic around here. Imperial presence keeps making it harder, and the Republic is sending more and more people around here. Seems like none of them understand the concept of ‘peace treaty’ anymore. So take your pick. I got a couple looking for an escort, Wuddle the Hutt’s brought in a bunch more people and we could use a slicer for that, and I’ve got a kid in my basement that needs medicine.”

“A kid?”

“Yeah. He’s Miralukan. He’s supposed to be on a ship from Anchorhead next week, only he’s been feverish and shivering for days now. He says he has parents on Corellia, but you know how it is.”

Either his parents are dead, or they’ve been sold off Corellia by now. Vette was the same. As soon as Nok Drayen freed her, she’d begged him for a trip back to Ryloth. Once she’d gotten there, of course, her mom and Tivva had long since been sold, and she hasn’t seen them or heard about them since.

“I can get him meds,” she agrees.

“Alright.” The woman pauses, “You’re from Ryloth, right?”

“Long time ago, yeah.”

“Do you need to get back?”

“Not… not really, no.” Vette tugs on her lekku, ostensibly to brush some of the sand off. “If I could ask for a favor, I’d really appreciate it if I could take your holo frequency when I leave. I’m trying to locate some people, and once I do, I might need help getting them out.”

A heavy set frown marrs the woman’s face. “I can’t do that. You’ll know how to get in touch with me if you need something later down the line, but a holo frequency is too risky. Especially if you work with imps.”

That’s fine. Vette still has Darun, after all. When she gets far enough to find her mother and sister, she can manage.

And right now? She can help.

~*~

Sharack returns at last, ready to guide them.

The Imperial Outpost in Mos Anek is the closest habitable place to the Desert Wound Ravine, and after such a long stay there, Gimrizh is ready to leave. The output is built into a city that's been built into a cliffside and it's hardly the most luxurious place she's ever been to. It's mostly old and covered in sand, a supply post for the farmers and traders that make their living in the desert outskirts. It’s dull.

She’s glad to put it behind her, even if it is in exchange for a multi-hour long trek through dangerous rocky terrain.

In an enthused rush, she hurries through the room she and the captain have been renting in order to get her things together. Lightsaber belt is in her hand, she’s wearing one glove with her wrist comm - where did she leave her shirt? She’d borrowed a number of multitools over the past few days to tune up her lightsaber and get the dirt out of it, and she’s finding it difficult to remember who exactly she borrowed the few she’s holding from.

“Sharack has a trail for us,” she tells Quinn, stepping out of her bedroom and into the main area as she looks for her missing things. Ah, her shirt’s on the back of that chair. Her brow furrows in concern when she turns to look at Quinn. “Are you sunburned? You look quite flushed.”

He stiffly hands her the shirt. “I’m fine, my lord.”

It only takes them another minute to get ready, and then they join Sharack outside under the suns.

Desert Wound Ravine is a number of sheer drops and steep mountainsides away from Mos Anek. The rock is punctuated by numerous nooks and crannies, worn away by time, water, or even animals, and the only way down is through a series of these such paths that Sharack has painstakingly found. As they go, the sand blasted rock makes Gimrizh’s feet slide and she longs for city roads again.

She never did anything quite like this on Korriban. Tombs were a different sort of unstable, in that the danger was once you entered the tomb. The surface was often flat, and thusly flattened the land above it. Sure, the animals were just as vicious, if not more, but they had mostly been scared away from the Institutes and the Academy, and not a single tuk’ata could be found within twenty kilometers of such places unless a Sith brought it in. Tatooine is far wilder, more untamed.

The real trick is avoiding the Tusken raiders, but she and Quinn only have to take care of one overly ambitious group before they end up standing in front of a cave that digs into the side of the cliff face.

Staring into the darkness of the cave, she can see a light around the bend and feel cool air on her face. There must be some source of water inside.

Sharack shifts her feet back and forth, eventually retreating. “This is where the padawan sought enlightenment. Enter, but I - I should remain here. This is not a place where I belong. This isn’t for me. And,” she adds to Quinn, “it isn’t for you, either.”

There’s a strange tremor in the force. Something old. Can Sharack sense that, or does the desert provide her with other clues?

Quinn turns to Gimrizh, determination in his eyes. “My lord. I would be remiss in my duties if I let you walk into danger unprotected.”

Frankly, she agrees. Not that it’s his duty, but that she doesn’t really want to walk into trouble alone. “I’d be glad to have you with me. If this is force business, then I welcome you into it. To be honest, I have no desire to go into this damn cave without someone I trust watching my back.”

He follows her gaze into the deep shadows of the cave, cast by high suns and steep rock formations. “Then I will be with you every step of the way.”

“Thank you.”

She takes her first steps into the cave and then keeps going further in, despite the tingle on her skin that keeps her on edge.

Deep in the cave is a large oasis below a huge open chasm filled with stalagmites. The water is a truer blue than anything she’s seen before, clear enough to see the rocks on the bottom, calm and still. Too still. There’s a light wind filtering in through the gap in the roof that tugs at their hair and clothes, but there’s no movement on the water’s surface.

Whatever strange phenomenon she senses in the force is originating from the oasis.

She steps cautiously into the edge of the water, the tips of her boots just barely getting wet.

She can feel the push and pull of the force tie into the water. It doesn’t feel malevolent or benign. It’s just there. She feels it swirl around her, little eddies that brush against her skin, as if it’s trying to flood into her, trying to permeate her. It pushes and then shrinks back from her every time.

“Is…” Quinn stares at the oasis, the fractal blue light of the water reflected in his eyes. “Is there something we are supposed to do?”

“I’m not sure.”

What would a Jedi padawan have done? What makes the most sense here? Or perhaps she should consider what the oasis itself might want her to do. Stars, she wishes that whatever aspect of the force is trying to latch on to her would just do it already. Her gut instinct tells her that is doesn’t just respond to Jedi, that she can make it work for her.

She takes a few more steps into the water.

That connection to the force is deeper now, but still eluding her.

Over her shoulder she tells Quinn, “I’m going to try meditating. See if I can figure out the trick to this place.”

She wades deeper and deeper into the oasis until she’s in the center and the water comes up to her mid-thigh. Then she closes her eyes. The noise of the wind, the cold water against her skin, all of it gets shut out as she lets herself get pulled into the ebb and flow of the force, trying to chance that faint connection in the water.

A flash of sound - so close -

The fragile link breaks. Her head aches with the effort of trying, but she’s getting close, she can feel it. She has to just keep pushing at it, make the force bend to her will, get past the block that refuses to connect her to the oasis’s presence.

Her second try snaps just as quickly as the first and another flood of pain rushes into her temples.

Damn it, she’s not going to fail where a force-damned padawan succeeded.

She draws in a deep breath. Relaxes her body. Just as she’s used to doing every day. Pick an emotion, focus on it, let it well up inside, use it as a guide. She focuses on her desire, her want to access the oasis’s power, how much she desperately needs to find Yonlach, the other feelings rolling around in her, surrounding her. Lets that leak out of her like smoke, seeping into the water.

It hurts.

Needles stab at her mind, twisting into pained knots.

“Fuck!” She digs her hands against her head, doubled over in pain. Why is it hurting so much? It hurts to breathe, to think, the force presence in the water burning as she taps into it.

Distantly, like through the mists of a dream, she can hear Quinn rushing towards her. “My lord! Stop - let me -”

“No!” Not him too! “Stay out of the water!”

She’s shaking, she can barely think, but she’s close, she can almost touch it -

Images burst behind her eyes. Light blinds her, so bright that it hurts to look at it, only she can’t look away, she can’t move. Thoughts flood her mind and a hundred thousand pieces of information follow. People, she sees people, she is all of them at once, flickering through them as they crash into her. Memories she can’t control, information she can’t process, a never ending stream of things that she can’t help but think she isn’t supposed to access.

She can’t process it, she can only hold on to that tether of herself in the force, of what she wants.

Yonlach, find me Yonlach.

A woman with brown hair in front of the water - an man points a finger, stern, determined - the woman bows - The padawan? - House in the desert, edge of the Sea - strange rock formation - Forbidden Pass -

She tears the connection as agony rips at her, falling to her knees in the water, screaming, “Get out of our head!”

The water is slammed away from her as if by an invisible hand.

When it rushes back, it is silent and still, and it’s presence does not even try to reach out to her again.

A footstep splashes.

“My lord, are you alright?” Quinn rushes through the water to get to her side, one hand already on his belt of med packs. He checks her eyes, worriedly tilting her head up to make sure she’s still fully aware and conscious. “Are you in pain, can you tell me what’s wrong?”

She shakes her head. “No, it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

And it doesn’t. The pain has faded almost completely, leaving nothing more than a dull ache. It vanished as soon as the oasis retreated and as soon as she stopped trying to push the connection. It no longer feels as though her mind is being torn apart at the seams, and the water is a refreshing chill against her skin instead of a violent intruder.

Her first steps are a stumbling mess, and she has to lean on Quinn for a moment, but once she gets back to the shore she feels fine.

“The padawan must be stronger than I thought,” she muses, “if she willing went through that long enough to seek the ‘enlightenment’ Sharack spoke of.”

“You are stronger than her, my lord,” Quinn assures her. He presses a small bottle into her hands. “Painkillers. I insist you take two.”

She’s not a fan of them, but she does it anyway, swallowing the tiny pills dry.

“And I want you to stand still while I run a scan, to ensure that you are neither concused, or have suffered any other form of damage.”

“Fine, fine.”

Gimrizh obediently plants her ass down on a nearby rock while he fusses over her with a scanner. There’s a brief bit of additional panic when the scanner causes her headache to flare up and the corresponding pain subsequently shows up on the scanner itself. Apart from that, she’s fine. Whatever the force did to her is gone, and her headache fades with each passing minute, leaving her more and more confused by what happened.

“I have a location,” she tells Quinn as he’s finishing up. “I couldn’t point to it on a map, but once I get there I’ll be able to find my way.”

His eyes widen. “You’ve found Yonlach?”

“Yeah. The man himself this time, and not just the padawan’s trail.”

“Well,” he says bitterly, “at least this oasis was good for something in the end.”

It’s not exactly her favorite place either. If she never comes back it’ll be too soon.

She waits until Quinn gives her the all clear before standing up on steady feet, the two of them heading back to the entrance side by side. Quinn usually has a habit of walking just a half step behind her, but perhaps his desire to make sure she’s alright has won out this time. She much prefers this to deference.

“Did the oasis reveal enlightenment to you as well?” Sharack asks as soon as they’ve rejoined her under the suns.

“Of a sort,” Gimrizh replies. “We have a location, at least.”

~*~

“I’m not sure what you can do for him,” the woman says as she leads Vette down a ladder, “But I’m grateful that you’re trying.”

Vette lands on her feet in the basement. There’s a chill down here, cool and somewhat humid from the tight enclosed dirt walls and the solid ten meters of stuff between here and ground level. She can see the clear remnants of a dozen or more people coming through here - clothes left behind or outgrown, a singer’s tools, spare blankets for the colder nights.

And in the corner a small boy is huddled into a ball.

A sweat soaked cloth is tied around his eyes, his dark hair plastered to his head, his entire body shaking with fever. She can tell just by looking at him that he’s got to be dehydrated and half-starving, if the way his too-small shirt hangs from his boney shoulders is any indication. Even in the shadows, she can see the vivid purple of bruises against his dark skin. There are fresh bandages around his neck, so there’s that, at least.

“Hey,” she says softly.

The boy’s head tilts towards her as she slowly makes her way over.

“I’m Vette,” she continues. “What’s your name?”

“P-Petris.” His voice is the dry cracked sound of desert rock. Definitely dehydrated. Even if the bar owner has been giving him water, he wouldn’t have been able to keep it down. She can smell the faint bite of bile that hasn’t quite left his skin yet.

She plops down across from him. “Alrighty Petris. I heard you’ve got Womp Fever?”

He nods, trembling as he does so. “Y-yeah.”

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” she says, smiling at him. “Which would you like first?”

“B-bad news.”

She tugs her bag off her shoulders and drops it on the ground, pulling the contents out one by one. Fever pills, something to keep the nausea down, and antivirals designed to deal specifically with Womp Fever. She might not know much about medicine on her own, but she knows how to look things up on the holo net and she knows that the captain keeps a very meticulously organized medbay.

“The bad news,” she tells him as she holds up the first dose of fever medication, “is that this is going to taste pretty bad.”

Some of the resigned pain in his face sags. “You have - m-meds?”

“Yep.”

The owner steps forward and places a hand on Vette’s shoulder to whisper, “We can’t have any theft reports against us. That’d sink Petris just as much as it would take down me and mine.”

“Don’t worry,” Vette replies. “I didn’t steal any of this. The Hutts won’t come after you for missing supplies.” She turns back to Petris and helps his small hands open the bottle of bright orange, sour-smelling liquid that he needs to chug. “This one first, all right? Than you’re supposed to wait - ” she checks the label, “ - twenty minutes before you can take the next set, and after that let’s try and get some water into you, how does that sound?”

~*~

Gimrizh and Quinn pull into Zaroshe in the early hours of the morning, after a long speeder ride through the night. It’s the closest Imperial outpost before the uncrossable expanse of the Dune Sea. From here, they should be able to get to Yonlach before both suns sink down and plunge this section of the desert into night. She wants to get this over and done with as soon as possible so that she can head to a nicer and less deserted planet.

The Dune Sea stretches before them, a wide open expanse of sand that goes out farther than she can see, with no apparent end. It just keeps on going till her eyes can’t see anything else, wrapping around the curve of the planet and vanishing.

A quick scan of her Sith ID card gets them a speeder. Quinn takes the driver's seat, with her sliding into the passenger seat. He revs up the engines and then they’re off into the desert.

Gimrizh slides the data chip that Sharack gave them into a small reader and props it up on the dashboard. If the woman herself refused to come here, at least they still have some of her knowledge.

The faint blue holo has a number of odd markings that Sharack must have made over the years, pointing out places in the desert with phrases like ‘banthas here’ and ‘Jawa caravan route’. She moves around the map until she finds the rock formation labeled as the Forbidden Pass complete with a note that reads ‘do not go beyond’.

How cheery.

Her eyes scan the desert as they zip past the rocky outcroppings that mark the beginning of the Dune Sea and the end of the Jundland Wastes. Beyond here there are no more outposts, Imperial or Republic, and there aren’t any more farming towns. Just desert and whatever pirates or lawbreakers who have decided to live in it. Including one old Jedi Master.

They’ve been flying for a few hours when the last of the rock formations start to putter out. She catches sight of a tall rock spire ahead of them, formed in a strange shape with a drastic divot near the top, resulting in what looks like a pin stuck in the sands. It's exactly the sight she saw in the oasis’s waters.

"That's the Forbidden Pass," she points out to Quinn, "Yonlach's encampment should be in that direction." She turns her finger to the north western desert, guided by the oasis’s memory and the slight hum of the force that tells her she's heading in the right direction.

Quinn turns the speeder towards where she's pointing, and as they crest over the top of a dune, Gimrizh can see a tiny building nestled between two sand banks. It's small and round, tan as the desert and with a few cloth sun shades spread over the top, like all buildings on Tatooine.

"There." She stands up in the speeder to lean forward and get a better glimpse, "That's the house I saw in my vision."

She snatches up the holo map and stuffs it in her pockets. Her fingers tap at her lightsaber hilt just to reassure her of its comforting presence. It's warm from the sun and the metal is smooth beneath her touch.

It’s a Jedi Master, but he’s old. He’s been in hiding for years. She can do this.

Quinn pulls the speeder right up to the closed front door of the hut and they get out cautiously.

"It's too quiet," he says suspiciously. He slowly draws his blaster. "Do they know we're here, my lord?"

She can feel the tension in the force, like a taut wire ready to snap. "Undoubtedly," she replies, and then knocks on the door.

She knocks twice and then with a twist of the force, the third knock slams the door open.

There are two people inside the hut. One, an old man sitting behind a desk and two, a younger man who leaps in front to his master's defense as soon as they enter. Yonlach, and a new padawan for him to train. Gimrizh stalks inside and blocks the door, Quinn standing guard to her right, his back to the wall of the house and his blaster at the ready.

"So," Yonlach says in a voice as steady as rock and as airy as the sands, "you are the Sith who has been tracking me."

"Pleasure to meet you at last," she confirms with a flippant little bow.

The padawan glares at her and readies his lightsaber. "Master, let me handle this one."

With a weary stiffness, Yonlach stands up and moves in front of his padawan. "No, Yul-li. Not yet.” He turns his head back to the two of them. "I know why you've come. Nomen Karr's padawan threatens you somehow. By using me, you seek to flush her into the open and silence her. You are aware of the mental link we have and wish to exploit it. Am I wrong?"

“Close enough,” she replies dryly.

"Then I shall warn you," Yonlach begins, "she is strong of will and will not fall to your manipulations."

"You're making a lot of presumptions," she says, and then adds, not sure if she's lying or not, "I just mean to speak with her."

Yonlach clearly doesn't believe her for a second. "I won't fall for your manipulations either. The disparity in our abilities is comparable to the disparity in our ages. You cannot win. Turn away now."

There's no way he actually thinks that will work.

"I've come a bit too far to turn back."

"Pity," Yonlach gestures to his overeager padawan. "Yul-li here is a powerful fighter, well versed in lightsaber combat. And I am a master, the likes of which you've never faced before. If you truly think you can win then you are deluding yourself."

Regardless of what he says, no matter the gap in skill, she still has no choice. If she can't defeat him, Baras will kill her for her failure. Choices are a luxury that she no longer has.

"My lord," Quinn says quietly to her, voice lowered so as to keep the two Jedi from hearing, "I know I'm not Sith, but the threat is not lost on me. Are you certain we can face both at once? Might it not be more prudent to - "

"It matters not," Yonlach cuts in, "As you will face us alone."

Before she can ask what the hells that means, Yonlach waves his hand and she feels a tug on the force. And Quinn collapses.

“Captain!” She falls to her knees and hurriedly presses her finger to his pulse, searching desperately. “Captain - please - Quinn!”

If Yonlach has just killed Quinn... There will be hell to pay. But there's a faint pulse that presses against her fingertips and she sighs in relief. Her racing hearts slow and she turns the full brunt of her focus to the Jedi, a cold glaring sort of focus that toes the line of blind rage.

"You have the disadvantage now," Yonlach says, still calm, like he doesn't know what he just did. "Stand down."

Her lightsaber is in her hand before she even is aware she drew it and her fingers ghost over the switch, itching to let everything ignite.

When she opens her mouth, it is an enraged snarl that only barely sounds like her voice. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

Yul-li brandishes his lightsaber and looks down at her as though she’s not on the same level of intelligence as him. “My master does what’s needed. It’s useless to reason with Sith,” he says arrogantly.

She shifts, crouching low on the balls of her feet, one hand on the ground in front of her, her fingertips just barely holding her weight. The metal of her lightsaber itches as she holds it behind her back.

His lightsaber blazes green and he lunges for her. An instant later, Yonlach ignites his blue saber and joins in to guard his padawan. Gimrizh feels herself snap into movement, flinging herself to the side, flicking her blade to the ready and then rushing into the fight with reckless abandon.

Her hearts race as the pounding beat of combat descends. She whirls out of one strike only to have to block Yonlach’s rapidly descending lightsaber, and then throws him off only to deflect a blow from Yul-li and then counter Yonlach again as he rushes back at her. Yul-li leaps in front of his master to strike out at her with a lightning fast exchange of hits that presses her back against the wall.

Barely a moment in and she’s already pinned down. Damn it all to hells and back.

Yul-li slices at her with his saber, short blurry slashes that sear into the plaster of the wall as she ducks and spins out of his way at the last second, limited enough that she’s struggling to keep her limbs. At least Yul-li’s aggressive offense is keeping Yonlach from joining the fray as well, and the old master is hanging back from the fight, but still watching and waiting. She blocks Yul-li’s next strike and then stabs straight at his kidneys.

Her blade burns through his side as he dodges just a second too lowly. He grasps at his side, wincing in pain.

Taking advantage of his distraction, Gimrizh kicks off the wall and somersaults over his head to cross blades with Yonlach. The old master is certainly strong and powerful, but it’s clear his area of expertise lies in manipulation of the force, not in the physical brunt of lightsaber combat.

She can beat him.

Their blades clash together a dozen times a second before Gimrizh pulls back and ducks just in time to avoid Yul-li’s wild strike for her head. He joins his master once again, forcing her back on the defensive.

She weaves around the room as they attack. Yul-li strikes at her shoulder, her right heart, her head, and she deflects his wild blows as fast as she can, before twirling around Yonlach’s quicker lighter strikes. It’s a pattern in which neither of them gain or lose ground. They block everything she throws at them and in turn she ensures that she’s always a second faster than their strikes, always just not there enough to avoid death.

Yonlach breaks the pattern and sends the desk careening through the air towards her.

She blocks Yul-li’s blade, shoves him off her, and then manages to bring her hand up just in time to stop herself from being flattened. Grabbing onto the force with everything she has, she wrestles control of the desk from Yonlach and hurtles it right back at him.

He throws both his hands up to try and stop it but she tightens her grip on the force and doesn’t let up. In the second before the desk hits him, he slices it in two with his lightsaber and the two halves pass him by. The wood crashes into the wall and Yonlach lowers into a fighting stance and holds his saber at the ready.

Yul-li whirls back to slam his blade into her but she’s ready for him this time. The force is buzzing beneath her skin and she’s boiling the irritation of whatever it is about Tatooine that she hates and the wild, unstable rage of what they did to Quinn. She lets herself tumble to the floor and rolls forward, passing under his blade with ease and as she pulls herself up behind him she sweeps her lightsaber against the backs of his legs.

He cries out in pain and falls to his knees, lightsaber falling uselessly from his hands. One down.

Before Yonlach can rush to his padawan’s defense, she reaches out with the force to the chunks of the wooden desk that litter the floor.

She clenches her hand.

Every single sharp shard of wood rises into the air on her command and points towards Yonlach.

She holds everything in place now. Yonlach won’t move because she’s holding his life in her hands. Yul-li can’t move and is looking at his master with outright fear.

“Please…” Yul-li begs, looking up at her with desperate eyes, “Spare my master. I’ll tell you whatever you wish to know if you’ll only let Yonlach live.”

Interesting. So the bonds between teachers and students in the Jedi Order are stronger than they claim. “And I thought the Jedi claimed detachment,” she comments, turning her attention to the padawan but still keeping Yonlach pinned down. “I want to know everything about the padawan that trained under Yonlach, Nomen Karr’s padawan.”

He glances back at a stunned Yonlach and agrees, “Her name is Jaesa Willsaam and she’s in-”

“You have no recollection of the padawan of whom we speak,” Yonlach hurriedly says, bringing his hand up to brush past in padawan’s eyes, just like he did earlier to Quinn.

Yul-li’s eyes go blank and he mindlessly repeats, “I have no recollection of the padawan of whom we speak.”

“Now sleep,” Yonlach adds and Yul-li passes out, his head hitting the ground with a thud.

Damn it. All she got is a name, and she had been so close to a location too. Gimrizh takes a cautious step towards Yonlach, the shards of wood trembling as she moves. “You don’t play fair, do you?”

“Jaesa is special,” he says firmly, unshaken by what he has done and the possibility of what she can do to him, “She has the potential to lead the Jedi to greatness, by erasing the rot of the dark side that hides in our order. You may kill me, you may kill a dozen others, but no one will let you come near Jaesa.”

“Don’t you listen?” Gimrizh says sharply, “All I said was that I wanted to talk. You Jedi, you keep speaking about surrender and letting in the light, and all that rubbish, and then you assume the worst of everyone you meet. Your order isn’t some great peaceful band, you’re just a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites.”

Yonlach shakes his head slowly at her. “I don’t believe you. I will find tranquility so that Jaesa will sense only peace as you strike me down.”

What will it take for him to shut up and listen? She can’t very well send a message to the padawan if he refuses to hear her out. She lowers her lightsaber meaningfully and sighs. “I'm not going to kill you. Not now, at least. I only want to talk.”

As if finally getting the message, he looks her in the eyes and slowly his face changes from resigned stoicism to something that’s almost surprised. At last he says, “Because of our link, Jaesa is already aware of what transpired here. She will do with this what she will.”

“Can she hear what I say?” Gimrizh asks.

He deactivates his saber in resigned defeat. “Yes, she can.”

“Good,” Gimrizh strides closer to him and looks him straight in the eye like she could almost see through him to the padawan on the other side of the galaxy.

“Hello Jaesa Willsaam,” she says as peacefully as she can with the dredges of the dark side draining from her system, “I’m sorry that it has come to this vicious hunt. Neither of us were given a choice. Nomen Karr is using you to hunt my master, Darth Baras, and my master is using me to hunt you. I don’t want to fight you, and I am not sure if I could beat you, but I do know that if it came to it I would take you into death with me. I hope you will surrender yourself before we meet again, that you consider your own survival.” She pauses and then adds, “We are the both of us, mere pawns in a game played by more powerful pieces.”

She turns away from Yonlach and lets the wood fall to the floor with a clatter. He takes a deep breath and says quietly, “You have given me much to ponder.”

“Good,” she goes to kneel by Quinn and orders, “Now if you don’t wake my captain, I shall give you the slowest and most agonizing death my master can think of.”

Yonlach obeys with a wave of his hand and she watches as Quinn slowly comes back to life.

“Are you alright?” she asks anxiously as he sits up and puts a hand to his head.

He winces at the bright light, taking a moment for his vision to adjust before focusing on her, “I’m alright, my lord. I apologize - I -”

Gimrizh lets out a sigh of relief and offers him her hand. “There’s nothing to apologize for, honestly.”

“Still,” he says, gratefully taking her hand and letting her help him to his feet, “I dislike being caught unawares and I should have anticipated the Jedi’s incapacitating tactic,” he glances over at Yonlach, who is currently hovering over his apprentice, “The Jedi are still alive?”

“I completed my task. The padawan got my message,” she tells him, “We’re done here.”

He’s alright. That’s what matters now.

“Of course, my lord,” he agrees, giving one last look back at the two Jedi before following her outside.

She slides into the speeder, deciding that she’s going to fly back this time and glares at Quinn when he tries to take the wheel from her. He was just unconscious. There is no way she’s letting him fly when she is completely capable of at the least not crashing the speeder.

“Sharack will be waiting for us by Horizon,” she says as she starts the engines, “Let’s go surprise her, shall we?”

~*~

Night has fallen by the time Malavai pulls their speeder into Mos Ila, after finally wrestling control away from Lord Gimrizh. The desert is still alive with people, the city a scattered patchwork of lights in the endless night time darkness that cloaks a planet that shines with twice as much light in the day. A sky full of unfamiliar stars hangs over their heads, almost close enough to touch. White spotlights shine under the spaceport’s Imperial banners.

Breev is pacing nervously inside the hangar bay, with Vette talking to her in a slow quiet voice. Both look up when they enter.

“Hey!” Vette says, that often grating cheer of hers slightly muffled, “You guys are back. How’d the super secret Sith stuff go?”

“It went well,” Lord Gimrizh reports, “We found Yonlach.”

Breev’s jaw gapes. “I… I never thought to see either of you again.”

“Always glad to exceed expectations,” Gimrizh comments dryly.

“This has been a great lesson for me,” Breev says slowly, her voice low and thoughtful, “The only barriers that existed were in my mind. I will never again assume I know all there is to know and I shall explore the entirety of the desert without reservation.”

“I’m certain Darth Baras’s work will benefit from your new mindset,” Malavai concedes, at a loss for what else to say in response to Breev’s words.

Behind the three of them, Vette shrugs and makes a ‘crazy’ gesture directed at Breev. At his side, he can see Gimrizh shoot Vette a glance that gets her to stop it. “I’m glad to have opened your mind,” Gimrizh says to Breev.

Breev smiles at them and bows respectfully. “I shall never forget this. Save travels.”

She steps out of the hangar bay with the same oddly absent air that she had when she entered the hangar bay days ago. Still such a peculiar woman. Malavai can’t help but wonder why a woman with her head firmly focused on the desert would have the temperament to work for Darth Baras, who is rather more concerned with the bigger picture. It almost seems like she wandered into the job by accident.

“She was… peculiar,” he comments as Breev disappears.

The corner of Gimrizh’s mouth tugs up a little and she replies, “Oh, that’s putting it mildly. Still, she served well.” She heads up the gangplank, her usual stride flagging from what can only be exhaustion. “Prep the ship for take off. I’m going to holo Darth Baras and inform him of our progress.”

Once the hatch doors slide closed behind their lord, Vette turns to Malavai and grins. “Want to know what I did while you were gone?”

There is, in fact, a plethora of things he would rather do. “I’m going to do as Lord Gimrizh ordered, and I suggest you do the same.”

She scrambles up the gangplank ahead of him. “I’ll check the engine room then.”

At a far more reasonable pace, he follows her into the ship. She’s long since bounded off down the corridor to the engine room by the time he reaches the communication room. By then, he has to pause at the sight of Gimrizh, on her knees, head bowed, as Darth Baras stands before her in the blue holo light.

“I used him to send a message to Nomen Karr’s padawan, and master, I found out her name,” she’s saying, her voice a low whisper that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Even like this she has the remarkable ability to radiate a quiet power, almost without consciously doing so. “Jaesa Willsaam.”

“Jaesa Willsaam,” Baras muses, rolling the name over, “Then your time there was well spent. This Jaesa Willsaam no longer enjoys anonymity. With your attack on Yonlach you have sent the message that she cannot hide from us. It will gnaw at the master and bring his prized padawan to her knees.”

“Shall I go to Alderaan next, master?” Gimrizh asks.

Malavai silent bows to her and then moves past, staying out of the holo’s range to get to the medbay.

Behind him, he can hear Baras confirm the order before signing off. And then a second later, a soft sigh from Gimrizh, the shift of her clothes as she stands. He’s begun the process of un-packing his medkit and double checking their stock when she enters, running a nervous hand through her dark brown hair. When stray strands catch the light, they shine almost as golden as her eyes.

“Quinn?” she asks tentatively. “How are you feeling?”

Why would she - why is she concerned? “Fine, as I should be? Is something wrong, my lord?”

She bites her lower lip, twisting the thick black tattoo lines into a worried frown. “Yonlach’s attack. I don’t know as much about Jedi mind tricks as I should, and I just wanted to make sure that there aren’t any residual effects.”

“Thank you,” he says automatically. “I am still capable of completing my duties, I assure you.”

“That’s not what I - I don’t care about if you can perform your job or not, I care about how you feel and if you’re in pain.”

Her concern is genuine, and he shouldn’t be surprised by it, because what he’s seen of her so far paints a picture of someone with frequent capacity for kindness, but he can’t help it. It’s simply not what he expects. It hadn’t been what he’d been expecting when she walked into his office on Balmorra and he’s still caught off guard by it, and by how she can so effortlessly confuse him.

Out of a desperate desire to at least appear as though she hasn’t completely stolen a coherent reply from his lips, he turns away from her to finish replacing his medkit’s supply of antivirals. “I am fine, my lord. But thank you again for - “Hold on. “Did you take anything from the medbay?”

She frowns. “No? Is there something missing?”

“Yes, a series of Tatooine-specific antivirals, some fever medications.” Now that he can pay proper attention, a number of items are missing. “Did someone break into Horizon? Whoever took them clearly wasn’t concerned with hiding the fact - “ He pauses, his eyes narrowing. “Vette.”

“Ah shit,” Gimrizh groans.

Malavai slowly puts down his medkit and stalks out into the communications room.

If she stole medication - Why would she even do such a thing? If she became ill herself - and part of him hopes that was the case because at least it would be a decent excuse - she should have headed to an actual Imperial medical center. If for some reason she needed raw supplies, it would have been far easier to request them from the supply depots in Mos Ila, which she had gone to anyway to request a fuel cell recharge for the ship.

No, he realizes as he opens the engine room doors, she did it this way specifically to irritate me.

Vette’s grinning from ear to ear when he enters. “Hey there captain stuffy. What can I help you with?”

“Why did you steal our medical supplies?”

“Steal is such a harsh word - “

Gimrizh’s boot clicks on the metal floor. “Vette,” she says flatly. “Don’t.”

“Hey now,” Vette protests, “am I a member of this crew or not?”

That has nothing to do with this. “If you are a member of an Imperial crew, then you need to follow Imperial procedures,” he explains, gritting his teeth and reminding himself that Lord Gimrizh expressly asked him not to start a fight with Vette. “You did not consult the crew’s medic - myself. You did not inform Lord Gimrizh or myself so that we could restock, and you did not restock the medbay yourself. If you were ill, you should have gone to a proper medical center and I imagine you would have informed Lord Gimrizh - “

She holds up a finger to cut him off. “I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“No,” Gimrizh replies, still calm, still threateningly cold, “but you have to explain yourself to me.”

“I have no problem with that.” Vette draws in a deep breath. “There was a sick kid. Womp Fever. Couldn’t take him to a medbay, but I couldn’t just leave him.”

A small bit of anger seeps out of Malavai. She could still be lying of course - although that’s not really her style. On the other hand, he finds it hard to believe that she found just one sick child somewhere in Mos Ila to take care of. Either she must have known the child beforehand, or knew someone who knows him.

Gimrizh nods slowly. “Alright. And why couldn’t you take the boy to a medical center? You’re hardly the best person to treat an illness yourself.”

“Eh.” Vette shrugs, trying to feign a nonchalant gesture and failing. “He’s a runaway slave. Any real medcenter would just send him right back to where he came from. I’m supposed to help him get off this planet.”

“That’s illegal,” he reminds her, “Regardless of what you might believe, you used Lord Gimrizh’s ship and her supplies to fuel this - this criminal pastime of yours! You cannot break Imperial laws under a Sith’s command and expect to get away without reprimand - “

She spins around to glare at him. “That’s bullshit. No one, let alone a child, should be forced into slavery! Gimrizh, back me up on this.”

“Lord Gimrizh isn’t - “

“Shut up and let her speak then!”

“You have no right to demand - “

“Maybe not a child but… “ Gimrizh cuts in and shifts nervously under Vette’s pointed look. This is ridiculous. A Sith shouldn’t have to be subject to such childish whims and arguments. “Slave labor is a central aspect of the economy,” she replies slowly, “Removal of the industry would result in economic collapse.”

But she’s - Malavai pauses again. No, this shouldn’t surprise him. He knows that she’s a loyal Imperial and that she received a proper Sith education. Vette has probably never even stepped foot in a classroom in her entire life. The simple fact that Lord Gimrizh is also undeniably Zabrak wouldn’t change the truth of Imperial Doctrine. He knows that, and it’s gratifying to hear that she does too.

“Krething hells,” Vette mutters, staring wide-eyed at Gimrizh, “You believe that rubbish?”

“I’m a Sith.”

“The Republic doesn’t have slaves and their society hasn’t collapsed. How do you explain that?”

The two aren’t the same and to equate the two is overly simplistic. “If you think the Republic doesn’t use slave labor when they can get away with it, then you’re willingly blind,” Malavai replies. “And regardless of what the Republic does or does not do, the Empire has had slavery for as long as there has been an Empire. If there were a better way, someone would have surely thought of it by now.”

Sadness creeps into Vette’s eyes. “But - you’re a Zabrak.”

“I know what I am,” Gimrizh replies tersely.

He can’t help but wince at the chill in her voice.

Vette holds out her hand. “Come with me.” She glares at him. “Not you. I want her to see something.”

Hesitantly, Gimrizh takes her hand.

“My lord, if you’re caught - “

“If I don’t indulge her, she’s just going to keep arguing the point.”

“Damn straight,” Vette agrees. “And besides, you might even learn something along the way.”

~*~

Gimrizh stands under the night sky, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt as Vette leans against a cantina wall. She’s humming a peaceful tune, tapping a rhythm out against the wall, and waiting for something that’s surely going to happen. She wouldn’t have brought Gimrizh out here just to talk, right?

And after a few minutes, sure enough, a hidden door opens in the wall.

A human woman with a tight bun atop her head waves them in. “Good to see you again. I take it this is your Sith boss?”

“Yep.”

She silently follows Vette into a back room. Behind a set of doors is the noisy bustle of a cantina, the sound of chatter and music and more than a small amount of yelling. The force is tingling against her skin. It’s difficult to tell if it’s just a reflection of her own nervousness or if there is actually any danger here. She can’t imagine there is. Vette wouldn’t have lead her anywhere dangerous - she trusts her.

“I’m glad you brought your Sith friend,” the woman comments, “It’ll make this easier.”

“How’s Petris?”

“Fever’s gone completely. He’s been asking for you.”

A trap door underneath the office opens up. The woman jerks her head towards the opening. “I’ll send word to Anchorhead, let ‘em know he’s on his way.”

“You always this involved?” Vette asks, already hopping down the ladder. “Seems risky.”

“Only with kids.”

Vette disappears into a basement, vanishing into the smell of mildew and sweat. Gimrizh hesitates. She doesn’t understand. That’s the point, of course, Vette is trying to get her to understand something, but it can’t help her from feeling as though she doesn’t belong her. She has a vague idea of what’s going on, she’s not stupid, and she knows that Vette wouldn’t be showing her this if she didn’t think she could convince her not to tell the local authorities.

The woman raises one icy eyebrow. “Go on then.”

That pushes Gimrizh the last step forward. She puts one foot on the first rung of the ladder, and then another, and another.

She drops down onto a dirt floor. It’s sort of what she expected, slightly damp earth, supplies piled into corners -

And a small child latched onto Vette’s legs.

“You came back!” the boy cheers. His voice is sore and a little ragged, but he seems better than a child in the midst of Womp Fever would. He’s a mass of black curls and too big clothes, with a strip of cloth tied around his eyes. Miralukan then.

Vette ruffles his hair. “Course I did. Gotta get you to Anchorhead, right?”

“And then Corellia?”

“Yep, then Corella. We’ve found you an awesome pilot with an awesome ship that can get you to whatever part of Corellia you need to be on.”

“I thought you stole Twi’lek artifacts,” Gimrizh says quietly.

Vette nods. “I do. Sometimes I lend a hand elsewhere, where it’s needed.”

The force pings.

“Vette,” she whispers. She slowly approaches the two and puts a hand on Vette’s shoulder. “This - this boy is force-sensitive.”

Vette looks down at Petris in surprise. “Huh. Cool.”

“No - we have to - there are rules for this. We have to report him to the Order, he needs to be trained. If he isn’t, he could seriously hurt himself or others.” She doesn’t know how to make Vette understand. This isn’t about ideals - this is simple fact. An untrained force sensitive is a danger, everyone knows that. “If he goes to Corellia - there’s a faction of Jedi there that are known for being vicious and brutal, he’d get picked up, and he would be tossed around by them.”

The boy shakes his head, burying into Vette’s knees. “I’m not going to be a Greenie. They can’t make me.”

She gestures to him. “See? This is a bad idea.”

“I brought you here so that you could see what the Empire’s policies do to people,” Vette replies, with a core of durasteel. “Not so that you could send this kid right back to the Empire.”

She wouldn’t - it’s not like that. Being a Sith isn’t like being a slave. Gimrizh is free, technically, and serving the Sith Order is a privilege. Besides, with a child who’s been able to go undetected for so long - well. Petris wouldn’t end up in Institute Five. He’d go to a training facility somewhere on Ziost maybe. It’d be better for him than it was for her.

“I wanna go to Corellia,” Petris mutters.

“See?” Vette says, throwing her words back in her face. “Now I’m gonna help this kid get on a speeder across the planet. Are you going to help me or not?”

Gimrizh shuffles her feet in the dirt. “No.”

With a resigned sigh, Vette lets her leave back up the way she came. Before Gimrizh completely abandons the basement, she can hear one last quiet remark -

“I guess you weren’t ready to understand after all.”

She quietly passes by the cantina owner and heads back towards the spaceport.

Vette’s wrong. She knows the Twi’lek is a thief, and she’s okay with that, but she hadn’t known that maybe sometimes what she was stealing was a different sort of property. That’s - she doesn’t know what exactly to think. It’s different with children isn’t it? Only child or not, an untrained force user is a danger and that fact can’t be subject to whatever Vette chooses to do with her free time. If Vette actually cared about the boy’s wellbeing, she would understand and she would send him to the Sith Order.

The spaceport guards let her pass easily, and she imagines that right now Vette is probably handing Petris off to a spacer, packing the boy into some run down speeder bound for Anchorhead.

As soon as she gets back to Horizon, she heads into the medbay.

“My lord,” Quinn says. He hesitates before saying what’s so clearly on the tip of his tongue. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Stars, she must look a mess. “I need you to file a report. There’s a force-sensitive boy heading to Anchorhead right now. He’s about eight years old, Miralukan, dark skin and hair. Named Petris. The Sith Order needs to intercept him.”

Her captain, on top of things as always, already has a datapad in hand and is hastily filling out the information as she dictates. “I can have the Imperial authorities on Tatooine intercept any ships between Mos Ila and Anchorhead, although it might fall into Cartel hands if the boy leaves our territory before he’s caught. Is there anything else?”

“Yes,” she says before she realizes what exactly she has to add. “On the alert - mention that he’s to be placed with a private Academy instructor instead of being processed through the usual system. I’ll send a follow up missive to the Academy myself shortly, to make sure that placement sticks.”

Petris will be trained - but he won’t turn out like her.

She doesn’t notice that she’s sat down on the medical bed until Quinn gently places his hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be done, my lord. If it will help, I’ll be sure to mention that specific request came from a Sith, not me.”

Thank you,” she replies. “I don’t - I refuse to send anyone to the Institutes.”

The bed shifts and she realizes he’s sat down next to her, albeit somewhat stiffly, as though he’s not sure what to do but almost certain that he’s toeing a line. “I - “ he clears his throat. “I was under the impression that the Institutes were considered to be a top of the line education for aspiring Sith.”

“If that were the case they would send everyone there, not just the ones that have nowhere else to go.”

 

Chapter Text

~*~

“Please, if I could just go back to Tatooine, if I could speak to Master Yonlach in person - “

Master Karr ignores her request without even considering it. She doesn’t understand why so often he refuses to so much as hear her out before dismissing her. On some days - bad days - she feels as though he accepted her as his padawan for her abilities and then got extremely disappointed to find out a person was attached to them. It’s difficult not to feel that way after spending over a month being dragged from safe house to safe house, like a child or a particularly talkative loaf of bread.

Jaesa is tired of it, but Karr says it must continue until she is safe. Safe from what, she’d like to know. The entire Sith Empire?

“Yonlach is a lost asset,” Karr informs her. “I can’t fathom why you’d say a Sith left him alive, but the man has become bait at best. If you so much as step foot on Tatooine to try and aid him, Baras will have you cornered within minutes.”

“Master, perhaps that is our chance! We could follow the Sith’s trail on Tatooine, spring the trap, and use it to talk to her - “

He stops walking and spins around in the middle of the ship’s tiny corridor to point a finger in her face. “You are not speaking to that Sith.”

“She seemed reasonable,” Jaesa replies, her voice quieter. “I feel as though I’m supposed to seek her out. Perhaps the force guiding me to her is an indicator - perhaps I can convince her to abandon - “

“Enough!”

Jaesa winces but holds her ground. “You said I had promise, master. When am I to prove that claim?”

“When you’re not a walking liability. Baras cannot be allowed to know your location or he will end you. After we kill him and destroy his operations, then perhaps.”

Stars, that’s not an answer. “And my family?” she presses. “My parents? If this Sith knows my name, then they can surely find them. I refuse to allow innocent people to become victims of this feud between you and Baras. Let me go to them at least, and make sure that they haven’t been harmed.”

“You shall do no such thing,” he orders. “You will stay here, on this ship, until Baras has been dealt with. If it is necessary then I will send a guard to Alderaan.”

At least there’s that. “Thank you, master.”

~*~

Gimrizh absently chews on a tasteless ration bar as she makes her way down Horizon ’s central corridor.

They’ve been docked at an Imperial space station orbiting Alderaan for a week now, waiting on further instructions. Apparently whoever is supposed to be her contact planetside is taking their sweet time in gathering information. While she’d waited a long time before being dispatched to Tatooine, the delay there had been caused by her Republic tracker, not by a delay on her contact’s part.

At least they are out of hyperspace, and the space station has enough supplies for them to restock with the strange food items Vette demands and the obscure medical items Quinn politely but firmly requests. She hardly minds of course, all she’s really doing is signing item request forms when asked.

And the excess of free time has allowed her to spend more hours tinkering with the lightsaber she took from Mashallon. She still hasn’t touched Naga Sadow’s, but she’s been working on adding a dial to Mashallon’s to allow her to adjust the blade length. Hopefully she can get it to the point where it’s theoretically applicable in a combat situation as well, but it keeps destabilising the energy loop and - well. It’s been consuming her now ridiculously open days.

Before she can pick up a magnetizer from the engine room, the holo goes off.

News. Thank the stars.

Baras appears before her when the accepts the call from the communications room, his hands behind his back as he looms over her. “Welcome to Alderaan, my apprentice.”

She drops to one knee, head lowered. “What are my orders, master?”

“Your contact here is Duke Kendoh of House Thul,” he informs her, with no small amount of annoyance. “I was supposed to hear from him over a week ago regarding his progress in hunting down Jaesa Willsaam, but so far he has found nothing and refuses to report in at convenient times. You are to dock on Alderaan and remind him of his loyalties. Inspire him to do his job.”

“Yes, master.”

“It is of the utmost importance that you hunt down whatever might be left of the padawan’s family or childhood friends. The more we can strip her raw, the better.”

Gimrizh can’t help but wince at that, thankful that Baras cannot fully see her face. Does he think of her the same way? As nothing more than a piece of meat? She knows she doesn’t exactly matter in the grand scheme of things, but it still makes her shudder. “You believe she left family behind here?”

“For your sake, you should hope she did.”

“Of course, master.”

There’s a long pause before he continues. “I should inform you of my plans for Willsaam before you do anything foolish on Alderaan. I have no intentions of killing the padawan - indeed, my plans have always been to turn her to the dark side and take her as my newest and most powerful apprentice. The way her abilities could aid my spy network…”

He trails off as Gimrizh is still trying to wrap her head around that. She’s supposed to help turn the padawan. Fuck but that’s so much more difficult than simply luring her out. She has no idea what angle to take here, how to approach the padawan, how to convince her without talking to her. For a brief minute she considers the possibility that Baras is setting her up to fail and then discounts it because the padawan is simply too important for that. If she cannot turn the padawan, she will end up dead and her task will be handed over to one of Baras’s other apprentices - Draahg perhaps.

“I’ll do all I can to ensure that she sees the benefits of becoming Sith,” she assures him.

“Do better,” he replies sharply. “Make sure that it is her only option. This padawan is too important to lose.”

Then why is she being sent after the padawan? She’s not Baras’s best apprentice. “As you decree, master,” she says instead.

The holo blinks out.

When she gets to her feet, she can see Quinn standing by the bridge doorway, awkwardly trying to look as though he wasn’t eavesdropping. He clears his throat, making a valiant effort to return to his usual parade ground perfect posture. “We’re going planetside then, my lord?”

She stretches, working out the kinks in her shoulders with a series of pops. It’ll be good to be on a mission again. She’s spent too long simply working out her frustrations against training droids. “You like the prospect of solid ground?”

“And of food that doesn’t come pre-packaged,” he replies with a faint smile. “I’ll inform the space station of our departure right away.”

~*~

Alderaan is spectacular. Malavai’s seen holos of the planet before, but he’s never had the pleasure of actually visiting or setting foot on the world itself. Even before touching down in the Rhu Caenas spaceport, it’s a beautiful planet to look at. Picturesque mountains blanketed in a heavy layer of snow are illuminated by the light of the rising sun and punctuated by sweeping green valleys. It’s a pity that a place known for its beauty can’t resolve the civil war that it’s constantly embroiled in.

Vette has apparently been to Alderaan before, and she refused to remain silent about it all throughout the journey here. She’s the only one who has, as Malavai discovers when he sees the Lord Gimrizh staring out the viewport as they touch down in the spaceport. From the moment Horizon breaks through the atmosphere to as soon as they land, she keeps her eyes glued on the scenery and the beauty of the planet.

He’s been trying to understand her so that he can put something in his reports to Baras, but it’s been a more difficult assignment than he anticipated. She’s has the experience of someone who’s spent their whole life fighting, but she’s also inexperienced in odd ways. Like right now, as they navigate the wide vistas and busy streets of the House Thul capital. There’s thick banks of snow lining the streets and dusting the rooftops and Gimrizh can’t quite remove the expression of awe from her face. She doesn’t walk in a perfectly straight path, she goes out of her way to step in the snow instead. Has she never seen snow before? Of course, if she lived on Korriban all her life, she wouldn’t have, but it just seems a bit surreal that someone so deadly is so intrigued by snow.

Malavai’s supposed to be learning where her loyalties really lie. And yet every time he tries to figure out what she’s thinking or why she does some of the questionable things she does, his picture of her blurs instead of sharpening. Her earlier conversation with Vette, for example. Her views, which - while in line with Imperial policy - had been the one thing he had thought she would be against. She’s confusing, he finds her far more intriguing than he should, and it’s highly frustrating.

It’s easier to focus on the job in front of him.

Directly in front of him is the House Thul chamber of politics, a large silvery building that looms high into the cloudy sky, dwarfed only by the Thul palace. The entire city has been built around the palace and the manors that surround it.

“Looks ostentatious,” Gimrizh mutters to herself as they enter the building. She directs this comment at a large gold vase that serves no apparent purpose beyond the aesthetic.

“Alderaan has one of the largest planetary GDP’s in the core systems,” Malavai mentions to her. “I imagine they enjoy reminding themselves of that.”

She glances around at the glimmer and the high ceilings and shrugs, “I can believe that. It’s so excessive.”

Vette, lagging behind them, runs a finger over the gold-plated arches that run along the main hall. “I could steal so much stuff from them,” she murmurs plaintively.

A pushy looking servant rushes up to them as soon as Malavai puts one foot over the entry way. “Pardon me,” the servant asks, “Is there anything I can help you with today?”

“Yes,” Lord Gimrizh replies immediately, “Where is Duke Kendoh?”

The servant sniffs and gives her a stern look. “Do you have an appointment?”

Vette makes a very rude hand gesture where the servan can’t see, and Malavai pauses to shoot her a glare.

Gimrizh brushes back her robe to put a hand on her lightsaber hilt. She just raises an eyebrow calmly at the man as she taps her thin fingers on the metal. His face pales and thin beads of sweat form on his brow as she calmly asks, “Do I need an appointment?”

“I’ll speak with Duke Kendoh right away,” the man hurriedly says, face white, before rushing off to get as far away from them as possible.

Another peculiarity, Malavai thinks. Gimrizh easily terrifies others - as Sith are wont to do - and yet he’s never found her to be cruel to either him or Vette. Does she just use her status as Sith for intimidation and nothing else? In fact, when he thinks about it, he can’t remember her ever giving him a reason to be scared of her. He can recognize when others fear her, but she’s never turned that real threat on her crew.

A good twenty minutes later, a mousy servant scuttles up to them and bows, “I have a message from Duke Kendoh for you, sir.”

It’s only after a tense pause that Malavai becomes aware that she’s speaking to him, not to Gimrizh. That’s - for fuck’s sake, he isn’t even carrying a lightsaber.

But despite the extreme rudeness and the way the servant seems to ignore Gimrizh completely, she herself isn’t annoyed by it at all. It’s almost like she’s used to it. She just sighs and gives the servant a bland look. “I know I don’t seem much, but I am the Sith, not my captain.”

The girl squeaks, “Forgive me, my lord, I didn’t mean to presume-”

“It’s fine,” Gimrizh replies.

Vette, a frown on her lips, leans in to whisper something into Gimrizh’s ear. Just a brief comment, whatever it is, but Malavai has to admit that he’s both curious and irritated by the lack of decorum.

The servant makes a noise that sounds something like ‘eeep’ and then hastily bows again, to Gimrizh this time. “Duke Kendoh has invited you to dinner, ma’m - er - my lord. He would be honored if you would join him in his chambers for a - um - a private evening. In the meantime, I’ll show you to the suite you will be staying in during your visit to Alderaan.”

She scurries ahead of them, showing them through the vast halls of House Thul with the air of someone who would rather be anywhere else in the galaxy.

“This place is massive,” Gimrizh comments as they head up a flight of stairs, “How big is House Thul? What do they need all this space for?”

After a moment when it becomes clear that the servant isn’t going to answer that question, Malavai realizes that she’s not only addressing him, but also that she really doesn’t have any idea at all and her question wasn’t rhetorical. “I don’t think it is necessary, my lord.”

She frowns at a hovering chandelier, “How useless. It’s pretty, though.”

If Alderaan put their money into funding their war effort, then House Thul might have already taken control of the planet and begun contributing to the Empire. Instead, they waste time and energy on pointless political ventures and in-fighting. The Empire needs a united Alderaan to back them, not just half the planet partially providing funding. In part, that’s one of the reasons why Kendoh has been so slack in his efforts to track down the Jedi padawan. Alderaan is so consumed by their petty civil war that they can’t look outside their own system and consider the large ramifications of their little squabble.

“It’s like a thief’s greatest dream,” Vette chimes in with a gleam in her eyes. “All on display, and nothing’s even bolted to the ground. If I had two unsupervised minutes with a plasma saw - “

“We are their guests,” Gimrizh reminds her.

“Eh. It’s not like these pompous rich people need all this gold.”

“Regardless,” Malavai adds, “it is still theirs.”

They arrive at a suite twenty floors up and the servant girl promptly runs off as soon as Gimrizh so much as glances at her.

“Stars, this place - I haven’t the words,” Gimrizh mutters as they look around the enormous suite.

It’s the same golden and marble as the rest of the palace, with a huge sweeping balcony and a number of doors lining a central room. Just the one room is easily half the size of a Harrower ’s bridge. This sort of thing wouldn’t be out of place in a Noble Sith House’s manor on Dromund Kaas.

Vette kicks her boots off and throws herself upon the nearest sofa. “Ah!” she sighs, burrowing into the cushions. “The lap of luxury truly is soft and silky.”

“Yes, it really is lovely.” Gimrizh deposits her supply pouch on the table, never taking her eyes of the rather spectacular view. She gravitates towards the ice encased mountains that form the jagged horizon of Alderaan as though they are the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. “As much as I am eager to proceed with my master’s assignment, I rather hope it allows us to stay here for a while.”

“It… is preferable to Tatooine,” Malavai allows. He does like Alderaan, at least in terms of outward appearance. When it comes to the planet’s politics on the other hand, he is far less enthralled.

Gimrizh clears her throat and settles down opposite Vette, and with far more dignity. “If I’m to have dinner with Duke Kendoh, I imagine that he’ll try and play into my good graces to make up for the fact that he’s been dragging his feet on this assignment. While I’m gone, I want you two to be doing your own digging into Jaesa Willsaam’s presence on Alderaan. I don’t expect miracles, but there might be something in the House Thul archives, and that at least would be a start.”

Vette just gives a lazy, two-fingered salute.

“We’ll begin at once, my lord,” he replies.

~*~

Vette lounges in the dinky cantina of House Thul, her feet up on her own private table and drink in her hand.

Her earlier foray into Thul’s archives had revealed nothing on Jaesa Willsaam, and when she had taken the risk to search the databases for her mother and sister they had continued to disappoint. It’s a bigger letdown than she’d imagined it would be. Logically of course, she’d known that House Thul wouldn’t likely have anything on her family, unless for some reason they’d been bought by someone on Alderaan, and even the Imperial side of this planet frowns on slavery.

That’s one good thing about this place.

The other is apparently the wine, if Gimrizh’s very flushed cheeks when she’d returned from drinking with Kendoh says anything.

She and the captain have been out on their next mission for a number of days now, and so Vette has decided to see what the nightlife of Alderaan has to offer.

This cantina is smaller than some, but it’s got a decent selection and shady clientele. If the people here were the posh sort that seem to loiter around some of the nicer buildings in this city, she’d have avoided it like the plague. But this place, on the outskirts of the city that’s scattered around House Thul, isn’t so swanky as to be ruled out on principle.

Nope, she thinks as she takes a sip of a tart cocktail, it doesn’t get much better than this.

She’s been to Alderaan before, of course. Twice, even. Once had been a run with Nok Drayen, when she and Risha had been too young to participate in the actual fighting and had instead spent the time swindling people at House Organa to buy them candies. The second time it had been her and her Twi’lek gang, snagging a Ryloth statue from some fancy museum that hadn’t deserved to keep it. Two trips, two good memories. Hopefully her time here will be another good memory.

Once Gimrizh and racist-stuffy-captain get back from doing whatever it is they’re doing, Vette hopes she can convince them to let her come along on the next death-defying act in the show that has become her life. She’s got no quarrels with boozing it up and living the high life, and she’d been happy to sit this one out in exchange for a longer look at Thul’s archives, but there are some problems that need to be shot at.

This is a problem that a bit of blaster work could improve - Gimrizh, despite being surprisingly a Zabrak, is still just as racist as the rest of the damn Empire.

Really, she probably should have seen it coming. All the internalized racism, the pro-Imperial sentiment, it’s been obvious. Whatever creepy childhood institution Gimrizh was raised in must have completely brainwashed her. What a damn shame. Vette remembers when she herself was like that. It’s such a long time ago now that she can barely remember it, but it existed. She remembers when she was young, before she met Nok Drayen and before she started to do slave work with so many other Twi’leks. Then, a Twi’lek hadn’t been a culture or a people. It had just been the people who look like her and who make the best slaves. Not much for a kid to look up to.

Her holo starts beeping and she reluctantly turns it on.

Speak of the Corellian devil. Gimrizh’s small blue image fills the holo as she speaks, “Vette. We’ve concluded our business with Lady Renata. I pity the woman. Kendoh might have tried to sweet talk me into bringing her back to him, but there’s no way I’d subject her to such a thing. We should be back sometime after sunset.”

“It’s your call, boss lady, and I definitely agree with you,” Vette says, tipping her glass to the Sith, “Got any plans for taking a tour of the Alderaanian nightlife?”

“Isn’t that your job?” Gimrizh comments dryly, “I work, you party?”

“Hey now, I work too.”

“Yes, about that. Our next task will be a direct assault on a House Organa General. I want you to accompany me as well, we’ll need every blaster we’ve got in this.”

“Yeah, I’d love to - but why in the force damned hells are we going after an Organa General?”

“Turns out that Jaesa Willsaam never worked for Lady Renata, instead she was a handmaiden to Gesselle Organa. Quinn is locating her position right now, but in the morning, we’ll be heading out to find her and convince her to give up information on Jaesa Willsaam. Can I count on your help tomorrow?”

“You’ve got it. See you when you get back, your Sithyness.”

Gimrizh almost smiles and then the holo goes out. Vette tosses the small metal disk on the table and takes another sip of her drink. Well. She did want to shoot things. She supposes that this will be a good way to get that accomplished, while also doing stuff for their ‘greater purpose’ or whatnot. She almost pities this Jaesa Willsaam. Poor Jedi, probably just wants to move on with her life and instead she’s being tracked down by a determined Sith.

Vette can sympathize. Korriban had been awful.

“Excuse me?” Some man asks her.

Vette glances up at the guy who just approached her and then thoroughly looks him up and down. A middle aged human, not obviously mean looking, wearing a heavy cloak that just screams ‘suspicious’.

“Hey,” she says, not quite as friendly as she could be, “What can I do for you? If you’re looking for a pretty face, I’m the wrong Twi’lek.”

“Oh, er no,” he replies, looking almost embarrassed but still calm. “I’m actually looking for the woman you spoke to on the holo.”

He’s after Gimrizh? Yeah right. He pretty clearly doesn’t work for House Thul, and even if he did, he’s still fifty degrees of shady. “No, you’re not, buddy. Trust me. Whoever you think you’re looking for, it ain’t her.”

“I’m pretty certain that’s the woman I know,” he tells her, a tiny downwards tug on his lips the only emotion that changes on his face.

“Uh, no,” Vette insists, “She doesn’t date people. And she sure as hell doesn’t go around meeting people. Killing people, sure, making friends, nope. Now, if you want my advice, go find some other Zabrak chick to fawn over because this one will get you a swift but not-so painless death for your troubles, got it?”

He looks confused - and good that makes two of them. “I- What?”

“Shoo,” she says and makes a little ‘go away’ gesture with her free hand, “You don’t want to be interested in her.”

“No, that’s not-” he tries again and then asks, “Pardon me, but that woman is Gimrizh, isn’t she?”

Vette slowly puts her drink down and checks the number of empty glasses in front of her. She’s only had two other drinks tonight, that is definitely not enough to get her this drunk. And for that matter, she’s been reliably informed that she’s more of a ‘loud giggly drunk’ than a ‘batshit crazy hallucinations drunk’. “How in the name of the force do you know Gimrizh?”

"I met her a few months ago,” he admits, “Is she on Alderaan? Can I see her?”

Gimrizh? Making friends? What crazy alternate reality did she wake up in? “Uh what?”

“I'd like to talk to her,” he repeats and Vette gets a good long look at him this time.

He’s somewhat familiar to her, but then again a lot of humans look alike. And there’s something off about him. He’s not a soldier or an officer, going by the lack of uniform and the fact that he doesn’t have a stick up his ass like the captain. She’s also not inclined to write him off as an Imperial either. He doesn’t seem to give a damn that he’s talking to a Twi’lek or that the person he’s looking for is a sub-species. And he’s not an Alderaanian, going by his light Coruscanti accent and lack of any visible wealth.

But there’s something strange about him. He doesn’t stand with the straight back of an officer but there’s an aura of confidence around him, just like she get from Gimrizh. She peers past his cloak and catches a glimpse of metal, just where Gimrizh carries her lightsaber. Another Sith? But his eyes are a light brown, not red or orange or yellow, like all Sith eyes are. Which means… Ah shit.

“If you think I’m going to tell a Jedi,” she says, hissing the last word under her breath, “where my friend is, you are sorely mistaken.”

He recoils from her like she’s just bit him and yet seems offended by her words, “Please, I’m not-”

“I’m an not going to lead my friend into a Jedi trap,” she tells him sternly, “Now leave. Or else I’ll call the House Thul militia and let them know that there’s a Jedi infiltrating their city. Even if this is on the outskirts, I’m sure they’ll come running.”

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding-” he tries, “If you could just give her my holo frequency-”

“Get. Out,” Vette points at the door.

He places a scrap of flimsi with a holo frequency on the table and then walks out the door, sighing wistfully as he leaves.

Vette drains her glass. “What the fuck was that.”

~*~

It’s late at night when Gimrizh and Quinn make it back to the House Thul suite. She supposes they’ll speak to Kendoh about their plan to track down Gesselle Organa in the morning. The General is fighting a war after all, there’s only so far she can go and wasting a few hours to get a good night’s sleep is hardly a pointless use of their time. She drops her heavy lightsaber belt on the fancy table and leans back in the plush couch. Quinn is sitting at the table, cleaning the components of his blaster with careful precision.

There’s a presence at the door, familiar, although not particularly welcome.

She sighs and runs her hands through her hair, grabbing Quinn’s attention. “Kendoh's here,” she explains, “Should I let him in?”

“It’s your call, my lord,” he replies, setting down a heavy metal slide next to the main blaster is belongs to.

After that ‘dinner’ - if she can call it that - Kendoh had tried to butter her up, sweet talking her into forgetting his complete failure to so much as bat an eyelash in Jaesa Willsaam’s direction, and to get her cooperation in dragging some poor Lady back to Kendoh for whatever nefarious purpose he had in mind. She’s still unsure how to approach this. He’s a duke, she can’t quite give him orders in the way she technically can to most of Baras’s subordinates. But this complete disregard for his job cannot stand.

She lazily waves her hand at the door and uses the force to push it open just as Kendoh is about to knock.

Kendoh strides into the room, his Sith bodyguard, FimmRess, trailing silently behind him. “Good evening, my lord. I heard of your return and thought to inquire about your progress.”

Quinn catches her eye for a brief moment while she considers what to tell the duke. It’s clear that his only real motivation is secreting Lady Renata away into some dark corner of House Thul, and that he has no actual concern for the Empire’s interests. She supposes the question then becomes whether or not Kendoh will be of any further use during this mission. If he will continue to be as unhelpful as he has been, then she has no reason to tell him anything.

She doesn’t risk nodding at Quinn, but she does give him as pointed a look as she dares with Kendoh watching.

“We couldn’t find Lady Renata,” she lies. “We dealt with her bodyguard although he made it was clear that his lady was long gone.”

“What?” Kendoh snaps, “Did he say anything else, or did you just kill him?”

“I did my job. As I’m supposed to,” she reminds him, pinning him with a cold stare. “We interrogated the bodyguard and found out that Lady Renata has taken refuge with General Organa. Do you have any information on how we can find her?”

He frowns as his mind almost finds the holes in her lies. “I can’t understand why Renata would flee all the way to Organa … No, I suppose she might. Now, I’m sure there’s something you can do to lure Renata back to - “

“No,” Gimrizh firmly cuts in. The entire purpose of this lie is to get him motivated to actually do his damn job, not to spend this entire mission hunting down his obsession. “We get Organa, and then Renata.”

“Where’s my motivation?” he demands her and it’s almost a threat. It’s actually sort of funny,

She fixes him with a glare. “Become self- motivated.”

“I prefer self-interested,” he retorts and then opens his mouth to say something else.

Quinn slides the blaster components back together with a loud click and, catching his eye with a grin, Gimrizh puts her feet up on the table right next to her lightsaber. Kendoh’s mouth shuts.

“Please return to what’s important,” she tells him, keeping her voice calm as Kendoh tries not to sweat, “Gesselle Organa is out next target. Quinn, did you find out where she is?”

“I did a sweep for information earlier, my lord,” Quinn says, laying the blaster down on the table and handing her a datapad, “The General is definitely on the front lines and I should have a more concrete location in a few hours. So far, it appears as though her headquarters are located in the Juran Mountain Range.”

She looks at the datapad, which seems to be a number of Imperial reports that mention the General and a location. There’s also a tracking program running in the background which she thinks she recognizes as the same one Quinn used to find the Jedi back on Balmorra. “Excellent work,” she comments.

There’s that flicker of a smile again, “Thank you, my lord.”

“Well,” Kendoh says with a huff, trying to defuse his anger, “Gesselle Organa poses quite the problem. She leads the Organa war against House Ulgo, but the reason she manages to maintain a more hands on approach and keep her and her advisors safe on the front lines is a tricky issue to solve. She keeps her headquarters protected by an impenetrable force field.”

That hardly seems like an impenetrable sort of problem. “Force fields need energy to maintain, Kendoh,” she reminds him, “We can cut off her source before confronting her. Where could she get enough power to constantly run a force field like that?"

"I don't -" Kendoh pauses and thinks, "Well... She could be piggybacking off of the planetary generator. Some of my men do the same for their private security fields. If you knocked out the generator... The planet wouldn't miss a beat but I bet the auxiliary systems would go down."

So, the duke is good for something besides giving her a migraine, "Quinn, your thoughts?"

"The plan is sound, my lord," Quinn tells her, clearly carefully turning the idea over in his mind, "Any secondary source tap like that would need to be manually reset. Temporarily shutting down a generator of that scale would reset it to whatever parameters it originally functioned at. Anything like the General's shield would have to be imputed from scratch."

Kendoh nods, "You know your stuff alright. It won't be easy though, Gesselle Organa will still have her private security force with her after the shield's down, if not her entire army. I doubt it will be easy."

"I'll try not to be too bored," Gimrizh says sarcastically.

"In order to successfully bring down the generator, we will need something powerful, but targeted," Quinn says thoughtfully, "Perhaps a 7-S-7 detonator to lay the charge?"

"Kendoh," Gimrizh turns her head away from Quinn and back to the duke, "Do you have anything like that?"

"I suppose," he says, "I'll have someone bring it by soon. But about securing Lady Renata - "

The door slams open again.

An out of breath Vette skids to a stop right behind Kendoh and the looks between Gimrizh and the duke with confusion. There's an air of panic she can sense from Vette, and it can't mean anything good. Something's wrong.

"Vette," Gimrizh pulls her feet off the table and motions to the empty seat next to her, "Come on in. The duke was just leaving."

Vette falls into the couch with a relieved exhale, "Thanks. You would not believe who I just ran into."

"Goodnight, Kendoh," Gimrizh says dismissively to the duke, "I'll pick up the explosives in the morning."

With a huff, he and his bodyguards leave the room. As soon as the door slides shut behind them, Gimrizh turns to Vette, "What happened?"

Vette looks serious, and seriously worried, "I was at some cantina in House Thul. Edge of the city, but still Empire territory, you know? Still our space. You called me up on the holo and after I was done talking to you, this guy comes up and asks me about you. Says he knows you and tries to get me to let him meet you or tell him where you are. I’m confused as fuck, so I don’t tell him anything of course.”

“Did he provide a name?” Quinn asks, leaning forward in his seat ever so slightly.

She shakes her head, “Nah. I didn’t ask, dumb of me, I know. But the guy was carrying a lightsaber.”

Gimrizh pauses, “A Sith?”

“I… no. Sith have funny colored eyes, right?” Vette glances back at Gimrizh’s gold eyes, as if to check.

“Yes,” Gimrizh says immediately, “The dark side causes physical changes, some more pronounced than others, but the eyes always change to red or yellow.”

“This guy was a Jedi,” Vette says quietly, “Acted just like one too. I don’t know who he was, but he was definitely after you. He seemed pretty damn determined to get in touch with you. He left his holo frequency,” she holds out a scrap of flimsy.

Gimrizh ignores the written number and shoves it in her pocket. She has her own suspicions about this. If it’s a Jedi, there’s no point in contacting them.

“And he bugged me,” Vette reveals a tiny metallic tracker that she plucks from the hem of her shirt. “Can’t believe he thought he could slip this past me. I wasn’t born yesterday.”

She carefully examines the tracker before tossing it to Quinn, “What do you think?”

He turns it around, pinched between two of his gloved fingers. “It’s short range. If it could transmit any sort of frequency off-planet, it would need to be substantially larger than this.”

“It looks Republic,” Vette comments, “But I didn’t check.”

Quinn flips up a small panel and peers into the guts of the device, “Yes, it’s Republic. I don’t think it’s standard issue though.”

Jedi,” Gimrizh repeats to herself, “You were right, Vette.” What the hells does a Jedi want from her? It can’t be Mashallon, she’s in prison. And she doubts that Yonlach or his apprentice would come after her. Yonlach is too old, too much of a hermit, to just jump planet and go on some crazy revenge quest after her. Besides, they had parted on, if not good terms, then not extremely malevolent terms.

So that leaves…

She holds out her hand and Quinn places the tracker in her palm. “I have no idea who you ran into,” she lies, calmly pocketing the tracker. “Let me know if you see him again.”

“Are you going to act on this, my lord?” Quinn asks as the tracker vanishes from sight.

“No,” she says with a shake of her head, “We have a job to do here. Finding Jaesa Willsaam’s parents is more important than running around after a Jedi. If he’s really determined to find me, he’ll find me and I can kill him then. Honestly, we don’t even know who this Jedi is - for all we know, hunting him down would just get all of us killed by a bunch of Republic reinforcements.”

He hesitates, clearly unsure about whether or not she’s right to just ignore the issue. There are a number of reasons he would be correct in trying to preemptively destroy the Jedi’s trap. And if this were any Jedi other than the one she knows it must be, she’d even agree with him.

“As you say, my lord,” he eventually agrees.

“I’ll deal with this Jedi when he wants to confront me,” she decides, “If he doesn’t decide to come out before we’re finished here, then I’ll chuck this tracker out of Horizon into vacuum.”

Vette laughs a tired, worn out laugh, “Sounds fabulous.”

“It’s late, and we have an early start tomorrow,” Gimrizh says, standing up from the table and making her way to one of the decadent bedrooms, “I’m going to get some sleep, I suggest that you two do the same.”

The tracker practically burns a hole in her pocket.

~*~

“Count Alde won’t make the rendezvous?”

“I’m afraid so,” Eleyna Hark says. She could hardly have believed it herself, given the level of protection the Count is given, but Alderaan isn’t at peace, and things happen. “He won’t be able to leave House Alde for another few days at the least, although his message made it clear that he’s invited you to stay here, at his safe house, for as long as you need.”

Her new Jedi acquaintance nods understandingly. “Of course. I’m grateful for his hospitality. Can I ask - I hate to pry, but is there a reason he’s delayed beyond simple scheduling errors?”

She scratches the back of her head, a tad embarrassed by the lack of security she’s admitting to. “House Alde had a break in this week. A Sith, of all things, managed to break through the House’s outer defenses and interrogate a member of the house.”

“A Sith? Is everyone in House Alde alright?”

“Yes - no casualties, thank god, but they won’t be able to get reinforcements to their defenses for a while.”

“Is there a problem?” The droid at the Jedi’s side whirrs and plugs itself into the computer terminals.

“A number of Organa’s reinforcements have been redirected,” Eleyna admits. “We’re about as close to the front lines against Ulgo as we can manage, and General Organa has spread her forces out to try and catch Ulgo in a pincer movement. If one area rushes to defend Alde, the move would fail. They’re stuck waiting until additional security teams can be dispatched from the Apalis Coast.”

The Jedi frowns, one finger tapping thoughtfully against his lips. “I could try and - “

Every light in the room goes out.

~*~

Gimrizh blows up a planetary power generator. It is not the most insane thing that she does on Alderaan.

Vette is the one who actually gets to lay the charge while Gimrizh and Quinn wipe out the droids that try to stop them from doing exactly what they’re doing. The droids mostly get a lightsaber to their sockets. That means that Vette is the one who gets to have fun wiring up a package of detonite into the mainframe. But once she’s done, Vette lets her do the actual blowing-up and she gets to press the button. It’s not a big red button, just a small switch on a remote detonator. Still a button though.

It doesn’t go up in a burst of power, in fact, the impressive effects - explosions, sparks flying - don’t really last long. There’s maybe half a second right after they knock it out where the whole base goes dark and every single droid falls to the ground and it seems like they’ve just accidentally destroyed an entire planet. Then the generator kicks back in and everything goes back to normal.

“Damn,” Vette says, putting a hole through the head of the nearest droid, “That was fun. What’s next? Are we saying ‘hi’ to this general?”

Gimrizh tosses the detonator down the elevator shaft they just stepped out of. It kicks off the metal on the sides until falling out of sight and making a distant clang as it hits the bottom. “Well we did just knock.”

Quinn glances behind them, likely considering the twisted hunk of a control center that the explosion left behind, “That was hardly a knock, my lord.”

“That’s how we roll, captain tightpants,” Vette says, walking out of the generator station with a swagger in her step.

He winces and rubs his thumbs into his temples in a futile attempt to stave off the irritating migraine that Vette’s comments give him. It could be worse, Gimrizh can still remember with painful clarity that first disastrous argument on Nar Shaddaa. They’re learning to live with each other without attempted murder. That’s more than she can say for pretty much everyone she’s ever lived with. Back in the good old days on Korriban.

“Vette, could you maybe… not?” Gimrizh proposes, trying to get a visual on where the General’s base is. It should be very close to the planetary generator that’s slugging back to peak efficiency behind them. But the snow, although stunningly beautiful and one of her favorite things in the galaxy, is a blinding white, and when the sunlight bounces off it she can barely see at all.

“Did you know that there’s a moon in the Kessel Sector that’s five times brighter than any nearby object?” she says absently, shielding her eyes with her hand, “It has volcanoes that shoot ice, and constantly refresh the layer of snow covering the moon. It reflects more light than the planet it orbits.”

“Arda,” Quinn supplies, handing her a pair of macrobinoculars, “It’s the fifth moon orbiting Rion.”

Gimrizh peers through the macrobinoculars and spends a second dialing down the brightness before she can actually get a good look at the mountainside below them, “Have you seen it?”

“Not up close, my lord. Only from the bridge of a star destroyer,” he tells her.

She gives up on trying to pick out the headquarters and gives the reader back to Quinn. “I’m terrible with this. Where are we going?”

“Didn’t your map have a giant fucking castle within fifty klicks of the generator? ” Vette asks, jabbing her thumb behind them, up the mountain and into the distance.

Gimrizh does feel a tad embarrassed by Vette’s realization that the building they’d seen on the holomap is a castle. She’d only given it a cursory glance before mistakenly thinking it to be a military complex.

“That’s House Rist,” Quinn explains in an exasperated voice, “They’re well known on Alderaan for… providing unaligned services of a more discreet manner.”

She wiggles her eyebrows. “Ooooh.”

“I meant assassinations, if you would please stop willfully misinterpreting.”

Vette doesn’t look particularly fazed, “Sure, sure. Are they imps or pubs?”

“Neither,” he informs her, “They’re aligned with House Ulgo. Ulgo is fighting against both the Empire and the Republic for control of Alderaan. Regardless, Rist is dangerous - they’re the ones who assassinated the last rulers of Alderaan and caused this civil war in the first place.”

“Sounds friendly,” Gimrizh comments, her tone oozing with sarcasm. “We’re headed down this mountain, Vette, not up it. Gesselle Organa is encamped near the bottom and that’s where we’re going. If you want to pick a fight with a castle full of assassins, we can head there later.”

“I’ll pass,” Vette says flippantly.

Gimrizh smirks, “Good choice.”

Quinn lowers the macrobinoculars and points to something down the mountain that she can’t quite see, even following his gaze, “There’s a military headquarters built into that gap, my lord. Approximately ten klicks down. It’s a Republic base, but no visible force field. Either that’s the wrong encampment, or sabotaging the planetary generator worked.”

“Let’s go with the second option,” Gimrizh says, jumping into their borrowed speeder. “Much more optimistic.”

~*~

Gesselle Organa is panicking.

The force field just fizzled out, all of a sudden and they have no idea why. The backup generator in her base isn’t strong enough to handle powering something as heavy energy as her force field, but at least all their other systems are up and running. None of the technicians can get it back up either. It looks like something happened to the planetary generator to kick them off it’s power grid, but they don’t have the time to manually trek back up the mountain and reset it. Not with House Rist close enough to knock on their front door - tactically speaking.

“General!” One of the techies runs up to her with a heavy datapad of schematics in his arms, “We can’t replace our tap on the planetary generator without sending a team up the mountain to - ”

Gesselle snatches the datapad out of his hands and skims it herself. Nothing of use, “We can’t send a team up there fast enough - we’d just split our forces while we’re vulnerable and that’s a death trap. Get a slicer from the main house on the Apalis Coast if you have to! And do it now, we can’t waste any time!”

She shoves the datapad back into the tech’s hands and continues on her way to the command room.

At least their tactical comms haven’t been damaged. She brings hers up to order, “Base Patrol Orinth - reinforce the main gates and give me a status update as soon as you arrive.”

They cannot afford to be ambushed while the shield is down. Rist is within spitting distance, and who knows what happened to bring down the force field. It could be that Rist is just as thrown off balance as they are, or it could have been a targeted attack designed to take them down. She doesn’t know how someone could have kicked them off the planetary generator’s grid without bringing the whole system down with it. She’s fighting a war here. She doesn’t like not knowing things.

“Someone give me a situation report!” she barks out as soon as her feet hit the floor of the command room.

“We’re working on resetting the system remotely,” Prinn, the head technician, informs her as he hurriedly messes with the terminal. “It’s taking a while, but I think if we can patch back into the central grid, we can replace the tap without having to input it manually from the power generator control station.”

Finally, some good news. “Double time, Prinn. We can’t let House Rist get any ideas.”

An alarm starts to blare throughout the base.

It’s the proximity alert. Blast, they’re being attacked! How did House Rist get a team down here already? Were they really the ones who staged this whole thing, or are they going to have to fight Ulgo men as well?

Blenks puts a comforting hand on her shoulder and she smiles up at him. “We can do this, Gesselle,” he says reassuringly, “What do you need to do?”

She takes a deep breath. “I need eyes and ears on our perimeter. Darna - contact Iridescence, they’re in orbit above our position and their scanners might be in better shape than ours, see if they can get a map of Rist’s movements.” And - she practically crushes the button on her tactical comm. “Base Patrol Orinth, have you reached the main gates yet?”

There’s a silent pause.

“Base Patrol Orinth - do you copy?” When there’s no reply, she turns back to her team on the terminals. “Get me a visual on - “

“General, our standing army outside is being wiped out!” Kan’grell, chief of security, alerts her. He tries to pull up the security holo footage. “Someone is on their way here!”

She snaps back to Prinn. “How’s my field looking?”

“My technicians almost have the force field reset, but we’re still a sitting duck!” he slams his fist against the terminal controls. “I can’t do anything else, General, I’m sorry!”

“It’ll be fine, Prinn, just keep working,” she tries to be reassuring, but it’s very difficult as she’s just as worried as he is. “Do we have visual? Is it Rist, Ulgo, what?”

Kan’grell checks a report on the holonet. “I’m getting reports of a number of House Thul officials experiencing a similar failure in their personal security systems. It’s not the Empire, that’s for damn sure. In my opinion, it’s House Ulgo that’s behind this. This isn't subtle enough for Rist - not their style."

Blenks leans over the security footage and his face pales. “Gesselle,” he says slowly, “They’ve breached the outer defenses. They’re inside the building.”

“What?!” She leans over the holo, her head an inch away from his. “They got past our army?”

“It was only a skeleton force here, you know that, and we spread them thin to cover our perimeter,” he reminds her, “We were counting on our force field to protect us, not our men.”

She tries to get a good look at whoever’s coming through the holo footage, but half the outside cameras have been blown out and are dark. It looks like the intruders are headed for the main elevator. She can see a vague blur of fighting before the camera she’s looking at gets shot out with a blaster bolt.

“Rewind that footage,” she orders, “And freeze it right before the camera feed is cut.”

Blenks obligingly does as she asks and pulls up a frozen image of whoever’s attacking. There’s a Twi’lek woman in the front, blasters pointed straight at them. At least that answers the question of what happened to their cameras. Behind the Twi’lek is a Zabrak woman with her entire arm plunged through the top of a droid, like she just tried to punch it to death or something. And there’s a human man shooting down one of her soldiers, dressed unmistakably in an Imperial uniform.

“Kan’grell,” she turns to her security chief, “You were wrong, it’s not Ulgo or Rist. Whoever it is, they’ve got an imp with them.”

He groans and looks at the image as well. “You’re shitting me. The Empire sabotaged their own damn systems and - Three fucking people can just waltz in here without being stopped?”

Giselle takes a second look at the tape, “Rewind it a bit more, slowly!”

The image slowly reverses, and she watches as the crazy looking Zabrak woman pulls her hand out of the droid’s wreckage. Just before the figure moves off the edge of the recording, Gesselle catches a glimpse of the woman holding something sword-like and glowing.

She swears under her breath. “It’s a Sith.”

“To arms!” Blenks yells, and thank the stars that he’s just as grounded in the moment as she is.

The guards in the room reach for their weapons. They never make it.

With the force of a battering ram, the blast door explodes inwards. The metal just crumples out of the way and a huge gust of pressurized air comes with it. The small, crazy, Zabrak Sith from the holo feed steps calmly through the whole she just created with a peaceful air, as though she’s done nothing wrong.

Blenks steps in front of Gesselle straight away. “Get behind me,” he mutters to her.

Damn it - he’s not her fucking bodyguard and it’s sweet, but they can’t afford this right now. Not with a Sith on the loose.

The few members of the guard who rush to attack the incoming party are swiftly dealt with. The imp shoots one between the eyes before her guard can get a shot in and the Twi’lek woman uses the butt of her blaster to pistol-whip another. The Sith raises a hand and every Republic weapon in the room suddenly flies out of their hands.

“Gesselle Organa?” the Sith asks, scanning the room before her unnerving yellow eyes land firmly on the general herself.

Gesselle pushes in front of Blenks. “None of you panic!” she orders her men. They're good soldiers, good people. They don’t need to die for this. If the Sith’s after her then she’ll do what she can to shield her men from this. “I am Gesselle Organa. Who are you, Sith?”

The Sith keeps her gaze straight on Gesselle, “I’m Gimrizh. I’m here looking for information on Jaesa Willsaam and I was kindly informed that you would be the person to ask.”
What.

Jaesa Willsaam? Her old handmaiden ? Her young, cheerful, and powerful handmaiden. Of course. She might not have been privy to the logistics of Jaesa’s absorption into the Jedi Order, but she wasn’t ignorant of it, and she certainly wasn’t ignorant of the girl’s abilities. But this - she can’t believe a Sith would go so far.

To be sure, Organa’s alignment with the Republic is an open secret but they still aren’t officially aligned - just as the Empire has all but thrown their hat in with House Thul. It’s against the spirit of the Treaty of Coruscant, yet not against the letter of it. Stars, Gesselle can’t keep turning this over in her head - she needs to focus. This Sith is going to ridiculous lengths for Jaesa but for the moment that doesn’t matter.

“You’ve perpetrated all this in search of my former handmaiden?”

“That’s correct,” The Sith - Gimrizh - confirms, not giving up any extra information.

Even if she asked why, she supposes the Sith wouldn’t tell her anything. And there’s no chance she could fight her way out of this. They’re unarmed, and if by some miracle they could overpower a Sith, then there’s still the two others, the Twi’lek woman and the Imperial officer, to get past. They’ve lost their guards - the rest of her team here is command support, not combat. Her men would be killed the second they tried that. The real question is how can she turn this situation to her advantage?

“You’re quite determined,” Gesselle starts, thinking as she speaks, “Like me, you’ll stop at nothing to achieve your goals.”

The Sith smirks faintly. “Flattery. That’s new.”

“It’s not flattery when I’m stating facts. You’ve decimated my forces outside,” She pauses to calm herself down, and then she has an idea for how this defeat can be turned in her favor. If she can bank on the Sith needing her alive and able to spit up a name, and knowing that the Sith has a deadline - getting out of here before Organa reinforcements arrive. “They were to be deployed to secure a part of my front that’s about to fall. Without help, House Ulgo will destroy my troops and secure another victory for my cause. Ulgo is an enemy of the Empire as well - it’s not a conflict of interest.”

“You want to make a deal,” The Sith crosses her arms, “I’m listening.”

“You seek information only I have,” Gesselle states, hoping beyond hope that this works, “And my front needs bolstering. If you try and torture the information out of me, I’ll never talk, but perhaps we can help each other instead.”

Gimrizh seems to actually be thinking it over, a minor miracle of its own.

It’s her two companions that are uneasy, with the Imperial only just containing confusion and the Twi’lek looking as though she’d really rather be anywhere else.

“I suppose there are worse things than killing Ulgo’s forces alongside a few pubs.”

“Sweet!” The Twi’lek cheers, “No torturing people!”

The Sith just rolls her eyes at that before going back to staring down Gesselle. “Alright. I’ll defend your front in exchange for everything you know about Jaesa Willsaam. If you attempt to double cross me, I’ll hunt you down and kill every last person you care about. Do we have a deal?”

“Deal,” Gesselle readily agrees, “Now, on my left flank, there’s a tunnel between my forces and House Ulgo’s that has been hard pressed by the enemy. I have only a rag-tag troop defending this tunnel and Ulgo is about to attack. You must repel the enemy forces or else House Ulgo will gain access to my force field generator. What’s left of my forces at the tunnel choke point are being led by Lieutenant Dargus. I’ll let Dargus know you’re coming and he’ll contact me as soon as you’ve succeeded. Assuming you do.”

“I don’t fail,” Gimrizh says calmly, “I’m sure you can attest to that yourself.”

That jab hits home in Gesselle’s gut and she almost flinches as she thinks of the soldiers that this Sith just killed to get in here to her, “Just get the job done, please,” she continues, “I’ll tell you whatever you need once my men are safe.”

“Vette,” The Sith says, turning to the Twi’lek girl, “Stay here and keep an eye on things. Make sure the General stays put. If they so much as twitch, you have my full permission to open fire.”

The Twi’lek pouts. “Sure, I’ll do the boring work, as per freaking usual.”

“Don’t take it personally,” the Sith tells her with a light grin, “I need to leave someone here and you’re amiable enough for the job. You can’t see Quinn babysitting a bunch of pubs, can you?”

“I’d pay to see that,” The Twi’lek snorts.

“I wouldn’t,” the officer says haughtily.

And this is so damn surreal. Gesselle has just talked to a Sith, a krething Sith, and has gotten out of it alive. Not only alive, but with a deal that goes in her favor. And now this Twi’lek is actually cracking jokes?  Who in the hells are these people?

“Don’t go anywhere,” The Sith tosses over her shoulder as she walks out, the officer following in her footsteps like a shadow.

The Twi’lek stays, holsters her blasters, sits down on a nearby crate and asks, “So, can any of you guys play sabacc?”

~*~

“For the record, my lord,” Quinn says at the tunnel entrance, “I do not fully support this course of action.”

Gimrizh’s boot crush the snow beneath her feet. The large tunnel opens up in front of her, but there’s a light coming from the end of it, so it can’t be too long in length. She can sense a few soldiers inside, Ulgo men probably, and then a small group of pinpricks in the force that radiate a current of fear deeper in before her sensing range dies out. Those must be the Organa troops that they’re here to aid.

To be honest, she isn’t even sure that she disagrees with Quinn. She doesn’t fully support her own choice, but there’s not many options. Sure, she could have had Gesselle Organa tortured for the information, but in that time, Jaesa Willsaam’s parents could leave Alderaan and she’d have to start the chase anew. She’s well aware that this entire venture is a race against the clock. Not only here on Alderaan, but also on the wider scale. This is a fight against Jaesa Willsaam but also against Nomen Karr. The Jedi Master will use every second of time she gives him to his utmost in his efforts to defeat her and Baras.

“I know,” she says, “But we don’t have time for anything else. We have to take what we can get.”

He sighs. “I don’t disagree with you on any particular point, my lord. And I understand the necessity of your decision. I’m just concerned that your actions as of late could be seen as anti-Imperial.”

Gimrizh almost chokes. Not because he’s wrong, oh no, but because she’s been having the exact same thoughts herself - only regarding what she did on Korriban. Which Quinn, she’s certain, doesn’t know about.

“I know,” she repeats, “I know letting Renata go was questionable but it was the right thing to do, and I know that it would be more in line with the Empire’s modus operandi to take Organa in for interrogation instead of making a deal but we don’t have time - I know that even letting Yonlach live might have been a mistake, it’s just that gets us closer to turning Jaesa Willsaam than murder. I - I want you to know, that everything I do, I do for Baras. For the Sith Order. For the glory of the Empire.”

“I apologize,” Quinn seems so surprised in his reserved way, which means she must really look off, “I’m not trying to question you, my lord. As I said, I’ll follow your lead.”

She nods her head and takes a deep breath to center herself. “Thank you, Quinn. I’m glad to have you by my side.”

That seems to be the wrong thing to say, as he falls strangely silent, gazing at her as though he’s seeing her face for the first time but is determined to commit it to memory.  Her cheeks turn red and turns away. She unclips her lightsaber from her belt and holds it, unlit, but ready, as she steps into the cave. They have a job to do.

A few Ulgo soldiers spot them as soon as they round the first bend and shout out to the others in the tunnel.

Gimrizh stabs the nearest man through the throat, overextending the motion until blood splatters on her forearms, and then draws a red line through the second’s torso as Quinn shoots down the third.

Three down. Who knows how many else to go.

The sounds of conflict have attracted attention. Another group of soldiers further up the tunnel come running, only to be disappointed. They die as swiftly as their companions did and it does nothing to stop Gimrizh and Quinn from advancing further down the tunnel. She even goes out of her way to cut the supporting beams of a gun turret as she passes by, although the controller is bleeding out on the ground.

One final curve in the tunnel later and they can see through the thing to the outside.

There’s just one last squad of Ulgo troops in front of them, too distracted with blocking the tunnel to notice the two of them coming up from behind.

Quinn hits one in the back of the neck before they’ve noticed a thing and then Gimrizh slices the next soldier in half. The last one tries to run before getting a blaster bolt to his heart.

She takes her first step outside the tunnel into the clearing behind it. It’s… distressing, to say the least.

Seeing land on a planet of such great beauty like Alderaan be reduced to a warzone like what she has seen on Balmorra is deeply wrong. Balmorra never had any beauty to lose and so there had been no tragedy in the war’s devastation. Alderaan is lovely in a way she doesn’t know how to fully encapsulate, pristine in it’s snow blanketed landscapes, but lush in the rich greens of its forests and sparkling blue in it’s clear rivers.

Here is a ruin of all that splendor. Deep trenches that scar the ground, blockades and sandbags hastily thrown over the ridges for cover. A few fires burn in the pits, reeking of oil and burnt flesh. At the base of the mountain is a shutdown satellite dish, maybe the source of the force field, given how tightly the Republic seems cloistered around it. Near the force field station are a few shoddy tents, some with injured men inside. There’s maybe only two dozen Republic troops left alive.

“So…” she starts, deactivating her lightsaber.

Quinn bristles as the implications of her disarming, “I am not going to surrender to a bunch of Republic scum, my lord.”

Gimrizh shrugs. “Fair point.”

She strides up to the main command tent and the guard outside it too shocked to shoot at her. Inside is a clustered group of soldiers - a sergeant, a few with rank plates too low for her to care about them - “Who’s in charge here?” she demands.

The group snaps to attention and one wearing a lieutenant’s mark plate steps forward, “I’m Lieutenant Dargus, I- I thought I must have misheard the General. She said a Sith would be coming to our aid but I - I didn’t believe her.”

Gimrizh looks him up and down. She’s not impressed. “And do you believe her now?”

“Sir!” one of the men protests. “I’m not trusting a Sith! No way in hells!”

Quinn doesn’t bother to hide his disdain. “I suppose death is preferable to considering the possibility that a Sith saved your hide?”

Dargus reminds his soldiers pointedly, “We’re drastically outnumbered, sergeant. The general’s given us an order, and besides, the imp’s right. Without help… we’re dead for sure, and then we lose the force field generator to Ulgo and then the general is dead.”

The sergeant bears his teeth at Dargus. “I’m not sticking around for a suicide run, and the rest of the men aren’t either!”

“You’d only get in the way,” Gimrizh drawls.

“Sarge,” another of the soldiers whispers, “I don’t know, maybe with the Sith on our side we could turn the tide against Ulgo. And besides, General Organa hasn’t led us wrong yet.”

Another one chimes in, “Yeah, and I don’t fancy being a deserter.”

Dargus lets out a relieved breath. “Glad to hear it. Sergeant, I will report this to the General personally. I understand your desire to run, but desertion can’t be tolerated. Shut up, put up, and hope she doesn’t court martial your ass for insubordination when this is all over.”

“Finally,” Gimrizh mutters to herself, crossing her arms.

A man monitoring a terminal suddenly jumps. “Lieutenant! Movement in the tunnel - and they haven’t sent us clearance codes. It’s Ulgo.”

Gimrizh scowls at the troop of soldiers - Republic soldiers. Stars, she doesn’t trust them, and she doesn’t trust Dargus in command. And yet she’s no tactician, she can’t lead a battle, and she doesn’t trust herself to lead.

“I -” Without thinking about it, she turns to Quinn.

Relief soars in her when he instantly sees her dilemma and steps forward to speak quietly to her, his voice a whisper compared to the shouting going on in the Republic contingent. “The tunnel is a convenient bottleneck, my lord. We need to prioritize keeping them away from the force field generator.”

“Right.” She tightens her hands into her fists. “Dargus! Do you have any heavy artillery that’s still working? Cannons - launchers - anything? Any ordinance left?”

At least he only falters for barely a moment before answering. “Just the one cannon, all the others are down and we won’t be able to get them back up in the couple minutes it takes to get Ulgo troops through that tunnel. And we have a few det packs left, but I’m not sure what use they’ll be to us, given how weak they tend to be.”

Absently, part of her mind categorises that away, like a note to her future self - Republic standard det packs have weak charge. Even though it rather fucks her over in the moment, all things considered.

“Move the cannon to the center if you can,” she orders, “Make sure it has a clear line of sight to the tunnel mouth, and position your soldiers on both sides of the trenches to flank the cannon’s range. I want those det packs positioned around the tunnel - make sure the blast will block of the entrance. Detonate it only after the first few squads have come through. We want to split them up and pick them off.”

“We’ll want to move soldiers in the backlines to whatever high ground they can get,” Quinn adds in. It’s said solely to her, not to the Republic, just for her to do with as she thinks is best. “There’s no point placing them in the farther trenches where their line of fire will be more often than not blocked by their allies, and the mountainside is rocky enough for there to be some cover.”

She nods to Dargus. “Do it.”

Dargus grabs his weapon and starts relaying the orders.

The men scramble for blasters and weapon packs, sliding into the trenches like it’s a habit for them instead of a defensive tactic. Lieutenant Dargus is the last one to take up position, helping a man with a leg injury up into the cockpit of thecannon turret. Gimrizh flips her lightsaber hilt over in her hand and steps out of the tent.

Quinn still looks bitter about the whole affair, not that she can blame him, “My lord,” he says stiffly, “I would not appreciate dying alongside a bunch of Republic bastards -”

Gimrizh laughs, surprising both Quinn and herself. “That’s the first time I’ve hear you swear,” and apparently today is just a surprising day in general for her, because she follows up that laugh with a smile she couldn’t squash if she tried. “You should swear more. Somehow, it suits you.”

“You’re the first person who’s ever said that, my lord,” he replies, giving her a look that she can’t figure out for the life of her.

“Well - I’ll say it again after we win this, shall I?”

The smile slowly fades from her lips as she starts to sense hostile intent approaching from the tunnel.

She’s not very good at sensing people in the force, certainly not as good as some Sith are, but when she concentrates she’s decent enough. Right now she can sense the Ulgo troops making their way through the tunnel, although she’s focusing intently on their presence in the force to do it, to the point where the strain is starting to make her head throb.

She ends up standing near Dargus’ position at the front and Quinn gets behind her to provide cover. The ground starts to shake with the force of the oncoming forces - droids probably.

Red hums in her hand as she ignites her lightsaber.

The first Ulgo squad passes through the mouth of tunnel.

As soon as the troops are in clear sight, the Republic soldiers start firing, raining blaster bolts down on the enemies. There’s the whirr of the cannon from behind her, mowing down everyone in sight and throwing a blanket of blood and smoke over the battlefield. The first line of soldiers fall without much of a fight, but it becomes clear that they are very heavily outnumbered. As the Ulgo soldiers keep coming, the Republic men fall back and Gimrizh gives the signal.

With a momentous boom the det packs explode, sending the first five feet of the tunnel crashing down on Ulgo’s head.

A good three or four dozen soldiers are pinned with no way out - but one of them gets in a lucky shot with a grenade launcher and takes out their cannon with a shower of dust and sparks and a scream from the pub operating it.

“Fuck,” she mutters. She flicks a blaster bolt away from Quinn before shooting him a fleeting smile. “Watch my back.”

She takes a few steps back to gain momentum before bursting into a dead sprint. Using a blockade as a springboard, she kicks off and leaps over the Republic soldiers, avoiding their blaster fire. For a brief, glorious moment, she’s airborne, relying on the force and her instincts to guide her - she sticks a landing right in the midst of the Ulgo troops.

It's like scattering nervous animals, they all start panicking and shooting at her. Deflecting their bolts is easy, sending them back where they came from is even easier, and she downs two of them with their own shots before she can so much as blink.

She flips her blade around to stab one who sneaks up behind her. Her lightsaber leaves his dead body with a hiss of energy, perfectly timed for her to sink the beam into the body of a fallen soldier who had taken a bolt to the leg earlier.

There's almost a rhythm to it. Gut one with a flash of her lightsaber. Dodge a bolt. Decapitate the one that tries to rush her. Flick a blast back into the head of whoever shot at her. They're not very highly trained, not skilled at fighting force users, and it's so easy to just cut them down like they're made of flimsiplast. She drowns herself in the force and knows what the closest soldier is going to do before he does. She lunges forward to stab him through the chest before he can try anything and then pulls back to maintain her guard.

Too slow - one enemy behind, lunging forward with a vibroblade that will go straight through her kidneys if she doesn’t dodge.

She kicks off, twisting her body in midair -

A bolt goes straight through the flanking soldier, through the back of his head, leaving a burn between his eyes as the bolt exits his body.

She lands in a low crouch, one hand skimming the ground and her lightsaber in a reverse grip, ready to gut the last attacker. Only to see that a second shot, as perfectly placed as the first, as already taken him down. It’s a horrible risk in a fight to glance away, but she risks it, looks back towards Quinn for just the briefest of moments to see a thin wisp of smoke rising from the barrel of his blaster.

Soon she's standing amidst a field of corpses.

The tunnel is blocked for the moment, but she can still feel the tremor in the earth and the force tells her that it's not over yet. There’s no way UIgo isn’t trying to clear a path through the rubble. Droids maybe? They might even try explosives of their own, blasting the fallen rock out of the mountain by force.

She pulls back.

A quick headcount of the remaining Republic soldiers shows that they lost about a dozen men, but it's nothing unexpected. Once the Ulgo troops had focused on her, they had pulled away from the pubs. She can’t find it in her to care too much. Organa - Republic - they’re all only a Treaty and a technicality away from being her outright enemies. If they don’t die by Ulgo’s hand, they’d probably die by the Empire’s later on.

Quinn reloads his blaster and she catches a flash of metal as he pulls a vibroknife out of someone's neck. She didn’t know he fought with knives. Even after months of working with him, she still finds she barely knows him at times.

"Alright?" she asks lightly as she falls in to stand near him.

He glances back at the tunnel. "Thank you for your concern, my lord, but the enemy will be regrouping. We should get ready."

"Let them come," she says, tightening her grip on her lightsaber, "They'll find I'm more than their match." She raises her left hand, a fist for the rest of the Organa forces to see. “Prepare for second wave! They’ll breach the tunnel shortly!”

From behind the barrier, Dargus blanches and slides his rifle back over the top of the blockade. “I would have prefered it if the tunnel collapse was more of a deterrent than that,” he grumbles.

You and me both, she thinks.

Her yell has snapped the soldiers back into action, and they stop fixing barriers and carrying the wounded back to the makeshift command center to pick up their weapons once again and prepare for whatever's coming next.

Gimrizh exchanges a brief look with Quinn before she makes her way back to the front line.

The ground is trembling.

A glint of light shines through the rubble in the tunnel’s mouth, and then slowly, the rocks begin to shift and fall to the side. From within the dark rock, a heavy metal leg of of spider droid pokes out, followed by more dirt shifting to the side and then the fat body and gun turret, flanked by another dozen squads of troops.

It sends a heavy shot into the ground, smattering the earth like dust and sending one of the Organa troops perched on the mountainside flying. The echo of the boom rings in Gimrizh's ears. Unstable earth slides as she skids backwards from the force of the blow.

She grits her teeth and runs for the droid. Two of the soldiers fall to her lightsaber with swift, decisive strokes, one to cut through the measly protection of a helmet and the other to sever legs. Another pair are shot down before she can reach them, and she is so grateful that Quinn has her back.

It briefly occurs to her, as she flicks a bolt ot the side and slides underneath an Ulgo soldier’s wild swing, that she hasn’t trusted someone in a fight quite like this before. Fighting with Vette is different. Vette is like Gimrizh - a whirlwind on the battlefield. They have an understanding that they are in a chaotic mess together. Quinn is reliable in a way that’s new to her. Precise. Efficient while - well, he isn’t showing off but in a fight he still draws her attention far more than she should allow.

She weaves between the legs of the droid, cutting at its supports as she goes. Underneath its belly, none of the soldiers' blasts can hit her, and they get picked off while she downs the droid.

At last, there's a heavy groan of metal and she leaps backwards as the droid's body comes crashing down. She jumps on top of it behind its gun turret and stabs her lightsaber as far into it as she can.

It gives a final shower of sparks before its lights flicker out and it dies.

Rough metal scratches her wrist, drawing blood. A stray wire burns against her skin but not enough to electrocute her. She pulls her hand out, feeling distinctly satisfied. She slides off the top of the droid and then the force screams at her.

"My lord!"

Her head whips around just in time to see Quinn’s panicked blue eyes as he tries to scramble out of the trench and run to her. "Watch-"

Something explodes an inch away from her head.

Black spots dance across her eyes and she can feel nothing but pain as she’s flung through the air, like a rag doll tossed aside. Her back slams into a barricade, snapping her head backwards and crunching her leg beneath her body. She breathes in smoke. Before she really knows what’s happening or where she is, she has to bend over as her back snaps and she convulses, dry painful heaves as her body tries to throw up the nothing in her stomach.

Must have been a rocket, she thinks, her thoughts oddly incoherent.

Her vision blurs and through a haze she can see a heavy blitzkrieg droid clank into the clearing, its gun turret smoking from whatever it shot at her. A hastily aborted movement makes her realize that a large chuck of shrapnel has buried into her leg. Her unsteady fingers slip over the metal - once - twice - and then she rips it out. It can’t hurt more than it already does. Hot wet blood stains her pants and runs down into her boots, thickening with the dust and dirt already there.

The strangest sense of comfort washes over her.

"I've got you," Quinn’s voice says, a projected calm that’s only partially betrayed by his hurry. She looks up to see him at her side, stabbing a syringe of kolto into her leg. Some sort of device - a stasis field? - gets slotted over her leg and then he injects her with something else that makes her hearts rush.

Ulgo troops approach them, blasters raised and she can’t - she can’t get up, she can barely move - she can’t save him -

"Quinn...!" she tries to speak only her voice is a rockslide. Dirt clumps to her fingers as she fumbles around for her lightsaber.

That brief warning is enough. Quinn ducks around the first blast the trooper can shoot. In one smooth motion, he draws his blaster, aims, and fires, putting a smoking hole in the soldier's head. A flash of metal from his belt is the only thing she sees before he neatly tosses a vibroknife into the second one’s neck.

It takes her a moment to remember how to breathe. She’d seen him fight before - but not like this - not quite so close range or so - so brutal.

A third Ulgo soldier aims at her captain’s back and no he doesn’t. She tugs on the force with reckless abandon and sends a hunk of rubble into the man’s head. There’s a thud, and then a squish, and more blood than she had expected when the man hits the ground. She can’t leave Quinn to protect her. She won’t be a burden.

She won’t get him killed.

It takes two tries, but she manages to send her lightsaber flying into her hand and pushes herself up. Everything hurts - except her leg. She can’t feel anything at all around her injury, and when she takes a step forward she has to adjust for the extra weight of the stasis field. She sways, and only just manages to ignite her blade as the massive droid turns its guns back towards the two of them.

“My lord - “ Quinn’s lips are parted in surprise and shock, and something almost like - Black spots flash in front of her eyes. Her head. “You’re injured -”

She takes a deliberate step in front of Quinn. She can take this. Her hands reach towards the earth, the force grabbing and yanking deep in the dirt, tugging boulders towards the surface, preparing an earthen wall that she knows will spring to her defense once the droid fires. Neither of them will die to this -

From out of nowhere, a second figure clears the tunnel and leaps on top of the droid.

There's a flash of green as a bright lightsaber decimates the droid.

The droid’s wreckage crashes to the ground, skittering up a dust cloud as it hits the dirt. The figure nimbly leaps off the top of the droid and the bright green lightsaber deactivates.

Jedi.

Gimrizh slowly steps forward, her leg steadier as the kolto pumps through her system. She points the hilt of her lightsaber at the Jedi. This had better not be Organa’s attempt at a double cross. If it is - Well. Murder might not be her favorite activity in the galaxy, but she promised to gut Gesselle and she’ll keep that promise. Especially since a double cross means Vette, alone back there, would be in even worse danger.

Around them, the Organa troops mop up the rest of Ulgo’s now that the biggest threat has been handily removed from the battlefield.

A dozen demands and questions die on her lips as she gets the first look of the Jedi’s green skin.

"Is this the Jedi tracking you?" Quinn quietly asks her.

She shakes her head. She doesn't know this Jedi - she doesn’t - and she's pretty sure that she knows who's tracking her. "Vette said that Jedi was a human."

This man, standing before them with calm serenity, is undeniably Mirialan. He's tall and lean, dressed in lightly armored Jedi robes, with long dark hair tied back away from his face and forest green skin. Dark tattoos mark his skin around his eyes and cheeks. Gimrizh struggles to draw breath. She knows that pattern.

The Jedi looks almost embarrassed. "Forgive me," he says, giving a respectful bow as he clips his lightsaber back onto his belt. “My name is Thutrel. I had no intention of startling you, and I promise, I’m not here to instigate a fight. After the planetary generator went down, I simply came to investigate.”

“Then how did you end up here, and not the generator station itself?” she demands.

"Ah," the Jedi glances behind him at an astromech that's making its way out of the tunnel, "Tee-seven picked up your signal to a Gesselle Organa. He was insistent that I aided you in your fight."

The droid gives a series of contented beeps that makes the Jedi smile. And stars, even his smile is so familiar, and it burns straight through Gimrizh.

"It wasn't necessary," Quinn says icily, hand still on his blaster as he glares at the Jedi.

Thutrel looks between her and Quinn with confusion, "May I ask why a Sith and an Imperial officer are saving Republic soldiers?"

"I don’t believe that’s any of your business," Gimrizh snaps at him, "Stay out of my way here and I won’t kill you - I have work to do.” She turns on her heels to snarls at Dargus, and the sudden movement makes her feel faint. "Send a message to Organa, tell her what happened and that I’ll be on my way shortly to collect my associate."

"S-sure." Dargus readily agrees, fiddling  around for his holo.

Apparently realizing that he is unwanted here, the Jedi leaves them be and heads over to the nearest trench, speaking to the men there in a calm reassuring voice while the astromech waves medical supplies around.

Dargus thanks her again before he heads back to the command tent. "We couldn't have done this without you."

"Don't mention it," Gimrizh says dismissively, "Quinn, let's head out."

He gives her a surpassingly stern look. "You're not going anywhere on that leg, my lord. And to be frank, if that Jedi does attempt to instigate a fight, I imagine you’d prefer to have both working legs."

Her leg doesn’t hurt, but she knows that’s solely because of the stasis field. And Quinn has a good point. She doesn’t trust any Jedi far enough to throw them. "Oh fine," she huffs, sitting down on a nearby crate. "Just get me some kolto and we'll head out. Don't I outrank you?" she asks, jokingly.

He gives her another kolto injection. "Technically, my lord, as the only medical officer stationed on Horizon, I outrank everyone in matters concerning the crew's health."

"Of course, 'always do as the medic says'," she says pleasantly, trying to return to light feeling she had earlier. Before that damn Jedi arrived.

"That is the rule," Quinn says. “Hold still please. This is going to hurt, and the less you flinch, the better. I’m removing the stasis field.”

With a hiss of compressed air, the mechanism releases from her leg and instantly a wave of agony surges through her body. It’s overwhelming for a few moments, to the point where she can’t see or think or hear, every sense preoccupied by the pain. Then the welcoming embrace of the dark side wraps around her, tidying away the pain into a neat little box in her mind, and she can pay attention to what Quinn’s doing to fix her up.

He packs the wound with kolto and seals it shut with a thin, green film that sticks to her leg like a second skin. A tight pressure bandage gets wrapped around her thigh in quick order, and if his hands linger for a concerned moment, she doesn’t mention it.

"Obviously you can't keep off your feet for some time yet, but until it heals, please try not to do anything too strenuous,” he tells her, packing up the rest of his med kit.

She wiggles her toes in her boot while the numb feeling sets in. "I'll try my best."

There’s a beeping at her side. When she glances down she can see the round face of the astromech that came in with the Jedi, Tee-seven. It bumps into the crate she’s sitting on and gives her another series of short beeps.

“Go away,” she tells it, “Shoo.”

It beeps indignantly at her. Is it offended?

“Do you want me to shoot it, my lord?” Quinn asks, clearly hoping she’ll say yes.

She glares at the droid. It beeps again. “Scram, you cheapjack.”

“Tee-seven!” Thutrel calls out, walking over to the commotion his droid is causing. Oh no. She doesn’t want to even look at that man’s face, let alone have to talk to him again. “I’m sorry if he’s bothering you, he means well but can be a bit… well… nosey. The two of you are of great interest to him.”

Gimrizh glares at him. “Do I look like I care?”

“My apologies,” Thutrel says without missing a beat. He’s so sincere, it’s nauseating. “I was talking to the men just now and Tee-seven was listening in. They say that you saved them all. I know that you probably had a self-interested reason in doing this, but I’d like to offer my thanks, regardless of your intentions.”

And then - to her complete shock - he bends at the waist into a deep bow, his hair falling delicately around his face as he does something she never thought a Jedi would do for a Sith.

Green hair - red light -

My big cousin Thutrel -

No, it’s not him. It can’t be him. For all she knows, Thutrel is a common Mirialan name, and those tattoos are a common pattern, and he’s nothing like her anyways. Gimrizh crushes her memories into dust only it fails, it always fails, she’s been trying to wipe these cursed memories from her mind for two and a half years now and she’s gotten even close to accomplishing that goal.

Besides - that would be an impossible coincidence.

Unless he knows. Unless he’s hunting me down.

“I’m quite grateful to you,” Thutrel says. “Not many a Sith would do the right thing as you did.”

Quinn bristles at the suggestion. “The Empire usually does the right thing,” he says venomously.

Thutrel gives a diplomatic shrug. “I admit, our experiences likely differ. I would never have expected a Sith to be so reasonable or kind,” he nods to Gimrizh, “You would make a good Jedi, although I know it’s unlikely.”

“Oh shut up,” she snaps. “No self-respecting Sith would ever listen to such a bullshit offer.”

He blinks in astonishment at her tone. “Very well. Regardless, I thank you for your actions here, and if you ever require it, the Rineth family line is at your service.”

He knows.

Before she can think it through she scrambles to her feet, sending the supply crate tumbling over. She draws her lightsaber, both hands trembling as they clutch the hilt, pointing the red blade at him. Red light - green - no - “Get the fuck away from me! ” she snarls, her eyes wide. “I don’t know how you found me, but you’ll get nothing from me!”

“What?” Thutrel raises his hands in surprise, open palms - meaningless. She’s already figured it out.

A second after she’s ignited her blade, Quinn’s standing protectively in front of her, his blaster pressed against the Jedi’s temple. “Is there anything you need to know from him, my lord?” His voice has never been more distinctly a threat, a simmering undercurrent of cold anger. “Or should I dispose of him?”

“How did you find me?” she demands again, her arms ramrod straight as she points her lightsaber at Thutrel. “Was it Tremel? Rihne? Reus? Who told you I knew her?” He just gapes at her and she orders, “Tell me!

There’s a series of soft metallic clicks.

“Ma’am,” Dargus says, his calm veneer cracking. His blaster is pointed at her, along with the dozen of his soldiers that surround her and Quinn. “Please put the lightsaber down. We’re grateful for what you’ve done, but we won’t allow you to threaten this Jedi. Just go back to General Organa peacefully.”

She tries to suck in air but her throat closes off like someone’s wrapping a hand around her windpipe and her lungs heave despite being empty. Her stomach ties itself into a knot and her hearts skip every other beat. It feels like someone’s stabbing her, a cold and hot knife that’s tearing through her and pinning her in place. The oh so painful, oh so familiar voice echoes in her ears even though she knows no one’s there, she can feel hot desert sand scorch her skin even though she’s surrounded by snow.

Thutrel’s face blurs and red blood splatters against the night sky of Korriban.

She’s screaming. She’s screaming even though no sound can force its way out of her raw throat. Her eyes burn because she can’t even blink.

“This will end peacefully,” Quinn informs the soldiers with a glare, “when the Jedi reveals the information Gimrizh Korribanil - the Sith who just minutes ago saved your lives - is asking for.”

“Korri - “ Thutrel spares a glance for the blaster pressed against his head and aborts the step forward he had been about to take. “You’re from Korriban. We - we always suspected that if Yaina was taken into the Sith Order, she’d have been taken to Korriban. That’s - you know my family. You know the Rineth family, you know Yaina.”

A dry, raspy sob is ripped from Gimrizh’s throat. “You don’t get to speak her name!”

She chokes on the pain as a bright red light flashes in her mind’s eye. She can’t breathe, she can’t move, she’s going to die-

“Please,” he begs, “Are you in contact with her? Can you send her a message - does she know I’m looking for her?”

“No.” She stumbles backwards. “I’ll do nothing for you. I’ll tell you nothing.”

There’s nothing more she can do for Yaina and so she curls around the memories like a protective dianoga, unwilling to let them see the light for fear that they will be bleached away under the sun’s glare. He shall get nothing, not a single speck of information from her. She’s not willing to speak of it, to tear herself into shreds all over again, just to satiate a force-damned Jedi’s curiosity.

With deliberate steady hands, Dragus gently reaches out and lays his hand over hers, lowering her lightsaber. “Let’s not do anything hasty here, alright? Head back to the general and leave the Jedi with us.”

She shakes her head. She knows how Jedi operate, and she knows what she would do, were she in Thutrel’s position. “He’ll follow.”

“We - uh - we can keep him here,” he says, giving Thutrel a nervous look. “Trust me.”

Not in a million years. She darts her eyes to Quinn’s and gives him the tiniest of nods.

Faster than the Jedi can react, Quinn drops his blaster and shoots Thutrel in the knee. There’s a cry of pain as Thutrel collapses, clutching his burnt knee, his pants scorched black and blood running freely down his leg. Tee-seven whirrs over to its master’s side, letting Thutrel prop himself up against his droid.

“There,” Quinn replies. A cold smirk sits on his lips as he stares down at Thutrel with vicious satisfaction. “Now we can be certain that you will not follow us.”

Thutrel raises a shaking hand to stop the pubs from firing. “Please - “ he coughs, pain rasping in his voice, “I won’t stop you, but please - tell Yaina - “

“No,” she repeats, almost a whisper.

Dargus and the rest of the Organa troops lower their weapons, allowing Gimrizh to stagger off the battlefield with Quinn at her side. The red light of a lightsaber flashes behind her eyelids and she forces herself to keep her eyes open. She can still hear the hiss as a blade ignites, still feel the sands of Korriban beneath her feet. She stumbles in the mud, her bad leg protesting at every step.

Quinn slides one arm around her waist and lets her lean against him. His hand is a warm reassurance, even through the fabric of his gloves and she slowly draws in deep breaths until they’re in the tunnel and she can press one hand against the rocky wall to brace herself.

The echo of an old scream chases her out of the tunnel.

Chapter Text

~*~

Vette’s got her ass propped up on a supply crate as she leans over the makeshift table and surveys the board. She’s almost completely sure that Darna’s playing somewhere around a negative twenty, and although Kan’grell has the tightest sabacc face she’s ever seen, he pulled pure twenty-three’s out of his ass the past two games in a row. She suspects cheating, but honestly, that’s just how the game is played.

They’re getting to the final round of betting, with over fifty credits in both pots, and that’s predictably when their fun is interrupted.

Gesselle Organa is the first to leap to her feet, followed only a moment later by her faithful little bodyguard - they’re so dating. Who do they think they’re kidding, if Vette can tell after half of day of being in the same room as them.

The surprise is when Quinn enters the command center. Alone.

“I heard from Dargus that you and your Sith Lord saved the day,” Gesselle says stiffly. Every slight measure of tension that Vette’s relaxed attitude and silly sabacc games had teased away returns in full force. As always, Quinn shows up to kill the mood. “As painful as this experience has been, I’m grateful that you came through. I hope you’re not expecting a thank you.”

Quinn raises an eyebrow. “From a dog of the Republic? Perish the thought.”

The only thing keeping Vette from chiming in with a ‘you’re welcome’ is worry. Why isn’t Gimrizh here? She assumed the boss lady would have wanted to get the information personally.

With an expression as though she’s personally handing over the keys to the Republic Senate, Gesselle gives them what they want. “Parvin and Gregor Willsaam can be found in House Organa, in the tower complex on the edge of the Glarus Valley. Whatever conflict they might have found themselves in, the Willsaams are kind, hardworking, innocent people. They deserve your mercy.”

“I’m certain Lord Gimrizh shall take it under consideration,” Quinn replies tersely. “Is there anything else regarding the Willsaams that you have yet to reveal?”

She shakes her head. “I haven’t heard from them in years, not since Jaesa left Alderaan. The only reason I even know where they are now is because I approved their security detail. And frankly, I won’t offer you any of my own speculations on the matter.”

Not like Vette can blame her for that.

“Of course.” Quinn gives her a sharp nod and nothing more before turning on his heels. “Vette,” he snaps. “Let’s go.”

Reluctantly, Vette tosses her cards down and trudges out of the command center after him. For his sake, Gimrizh had better be dying because nothing else would excuse the way he’s acting towards her - and the fact that she’s a little bitter about him taking charge. Sure, technically he’s the next highest rank after Gimrizh, but they’ve never been a very traditional crew and if there’s a hierarchy here, Vette would like to be farther up than rock bottom.

“What the hell happened?” she hisses as soon as they’re out of earshot, making their way rather hurriedly out of the Organa base.

He frowns at empty air. “Lord Gimrizh is injured.”

From the look on his face she’d assume that it’s a pretty shit situation. “How bad? Is she going to be okay? Fuck, I should have been there, helping - seriously, is she going to be alright?”

“She will be fine. We need to prioritize getting her back to House Thul.”

“Shit. Okay.”

~*~

Malavai is an idiot.

When Gimrizh was swaying on her feet, unable to walk in a straight line or stand for more than a few minutes, as they made their way back to the House Thul speeder pad, he’d been concerned about her leg. When she couldn’t make it up the stairs to the palace’s private medbay, he’d worried about blood loss. He’d completely missed the very obvious signs of a serious concussion.

If only he hadn’t been so distracted by that damn Jedi - if only he’d been more focused, more alert - if only he hadn’t been quite so concerned for her wellbeing. If he had treated this as any other medical emergency, he could have stayed detached, analytical, he could have noticed that she got hit in the head. It was textbook.

At least the private medbay in the palace is easily commandeered. He and Vette help Gimrizh into a bed, even as she passes out of consciousness with a pained whimper that makes his heart stop for just one beat.

There’s only one NP on staff here, a harried looking woman who instantly starts preparing a kolto drip and clearing space.

“Concussion,” he informs her. He places the needle into Gimrizh’s upper arm and sets up a second drip for her leg. That injury will need stitches when they have a moment, but until then a kolto pack will have to do. “She’s already unconscious and has lost a lot of blood. Does House Thul have anyone on staff who’s specialized in brain trauma?”

“Yes - I can have her up here in a moment.”

“I’ll just…” Vette makes an awkward gesture to one of the few waiting chairs around the room, and then another to the door. “Or I could…?”

He only spares her a brief glance to nod before returning his attention to Gimrizh. “I’ll contact you as soon as her condition changes.”

“Is there anything I can…?”

“See if you can confirm the information we were given.”

“Gotcha.”

Vette shuffles out, closing the door behind her with a quiet click and then there’s nothing more Malavai can do besides fix up the wounds he can see and wait for the specialist to arrive.

After only a few minutes, she does. The woman is older, in her late sixties perhaps, at peers at Gimrizh through thin spectacles. She checks the chart only briefly and then sets up a complicated scanner, the wide metal half-circles whirring as they slowly hover around Gimrizh’s head and feed diagnostic information into a holo image above her unconcious form.

“Concussion huh?” The specialist clicks her tongue, using her hands to manipulate the holo image. “I don’t know what she was doing - and I know better than to ask - but this is going to take a while.”

True enough, the specialist spends a long few minutes carefully scanning Gimrizh’s brain, checking for damage caused by the concussion, as well as anything more life threatening, like internal hemorrhaging. Malavai patches up what he can. He gives Gimrizh’s thigh wound the proper stitching job that it needs and wraps up her other bumps and scrapes, trusting in kolto and a bit of time to take care of any cosmetic damages.

“You’re her XO or her medical officer or something?” the specialist asks offhand.

“Yes.” For all the good it’s done. He can’t seem to do his job as Gimrizh’s captain properly, and he can only guess how useful he’s being to Lord Baras at the moment. “To both - I attended an Imperial medical academy, specializing in field surgery.”

She grunts. “Not a bad patch job on the leg. You let her walk here like that?”

“We hardly had much choice in the matter.”

“Hm. I need to mix a series of kolto injections for her. I can’t just overdose her on the stuff, so I need the kolto to activate only upon reaching certain areas of the brain.” She abandons the scanner and starts inputting formulas into the terminal connected to the kolto drip. “She should wake up in a few hours, but that’s not a guarantee. If you have a decent head on your shoulders, you won’t let her walk out of here until tomorrow at the earliest.”

The part of him that’s a medic bristles at the implication, but it’s crushed by the simply fact that he let Gimrizh’s injuries go unchecked. “I’ll ensure she remains under observation. When should I expect your return?”

She peers at the terminal screen. “Four hours. You can leave whenever, it’s going to be an uneventful four hours, and I’m sure you Imperials have a lot to do on Alderaan.”

“Thank you,” he says, as politely as he can because he is grateful for her help, “but I will remain here until my lord wakes.”

She shrugs. “Your funeral.”

When she leaves in a whirl of white coat and the echo of cigarra smoke, Malavai finds the medbay stiflingly silent.

It has been reduced to just him and Gimrizh, and the hum of the machines as they slowly administer her cocktail of restoratives. At a loss for anything else to do, he picks up one of the chairs and places it at her bedside. In theory he could work during the wait - it isn’t as though his usual workflow ceases when they are off trekking through the wilderness on Darth Baras’s orders. Things have certainly piled up.

He tries and fails twice to focus on his datapad and then gives up.

Gimrizh’s chest slowly rises and falls, the heart rate monitor in the corner steadily beeping. Two different rates, he’d noticed. Zabraks have two hearts. Does that help Gimrizh survive injuries that might kill a human, or does it just make her body run through it’s allotted time even faster, hastening her towards her end? He remembers her squinting up at the sky, searching for stars that aren’t visible during the daytime and can’t help but think of a supernova - blinding and beautiful and then spent.

Why can’t his image of her settle into something comprehensible? Right now she seems as fragile as glass and yet earlier, when she had put herself between him and the droid, bleeding and broken and defiant, she seemed undominable. She flickers in and out of his perception and damn it, it’s his job to figure out who she is and beyond that, he wants to know.

After so long on Balmorra, after Broysc, he should be accustomed to failure. The idea that his reports to Baras are useless frustrates him.

As every day goes by, he feels as though he understands less and less of his situation.

Why is he on Gimrizh’s crew?

Oh, he wants to be there, to be sure. If Baras had actually allowed Malavai to station wherever he pleased, he might have even chosen Gimrizh’s crew himself, had he thought the matter through. It isn’t unreasonable to think that Baras would have predicted such a thing, given the Sith’s talent for playing all sides at all times. So why was it so important to ensure a spy on her crew? The mission to capture Jaesa Willsaam is important, of course, but Gimrizh hadn’t been assigned to hunt the padawan down when he joined. Had Baras always assumed that she would be in the best position for that particular task?

The question he cannot figure out is if Baras’s need for a loyal spy on Gimrizh’s crew is a function of Gimrizh or of Jaesa Willsaam. Is Gimrizh’s loyalty to the Empire actually questionable? From what he’s seen, he can’t imagine that to be the case. Or is Jaesa Willsaam such a threat and such a unique target that everyone involved much have dedicated eyes and ears on them at all times? And, if Baras’s parting instructions are ever enacted, a dedicated blaster on their backs?
He and Gimrizh only have tiny fractions of this particular puzzle, with Baras alone holding all the strings like a spider in the center of a web, tugging on threads to see which contains prey.

There’s a knock on the door. It slides open to reveal Vette standing there, almost sheepishly. “I uh - I couldn’t focus on the work - and, well, basically there’s nothing that goes against what Gesselle said - and it’s been awhile and - how’s she doing?”

Malavai unconsciously slides away from Gimrizh, pulling his hand back from where it had been resting atop hers. When had he -

“She should be waking up in a few hours,” he informs Vette.

“That’s not vague at all.”

“I’d be happy to give you a more precise time, but unfortunately I’m just as much in the dark as you are.”

She holds up her hands in the universal gesture of peace. “Sorry.” A frown twists on her lips as she looks at him. “You’re worried. Actually, seriously worried about her. Huh. I thought it was just her who gave a shit about you. Didn’t realize it went both ways.”

What had she thought? That he is so cold hearted as to not give a damn about his commanding officer? He knows that Vette has never thought highly of him, and given how often she accuses him of having a speciesist attitude, she probably assumed some rubbish about his opinion of Gimrizh’s species - which is irrelevant, given her status as a Sith. “Of course I am concerned for her well-being. Lord Gimrizh is my commanding officer, and I clearly failed in my duties as her medical officer.”

And he doesn’t want her to slip out of his grasp before he can grasp that elusive horizon of understanding her.

Vette drags a chair over and plops down next to him. “Sure. And you also care.”

“Do you have a point?”

“Not really. I’m just… Glad to know that she has more people who genuinely give a shit about her. It’s not as though Darth -” she clears her throat, choking off what was probably an insult against Darth Baras. “Well, my point is that she can use all the support she can get.”

“I have no intentions of abandoning her, not as long as she’ll have me on her crew.” Not as long as Darth Baras allows it.

“Yeah well…” Vette chews on her lower lip. “Me neither.”

At least they can agree on that.

~*~

After three more hours come and go without Gimrizh waking up, a second doctor-lady-person shows up and shoos Vette out of the medbay. Apparently captain stuffy can stay because medic blah-blah and she has to go because not-a-medic blah-blah. Back to procrastinating as a form of anxiety management it is.

There is one, and only one, good thing that comes from both Gimrizh and Quinn being out of the picture for the moment.

She kicks her feet up on Horizon’s bridge terminal, plugs in their ship’s identification, and peruses the basic Imperial census. There’s only so much she can view just using the ship’s access feed but it’s a start. She can begin ruling out some places for her mother and sister, at the least. And when she gets all her various flimsiwork approved, she’ll be a citizen and she’ll have more access.

Stars, doing things the legal way is a pain in the ass. It had better pay off.

If it doesn’t, she supposes she could always hire a bounty hunter, although that can be a bigger risk in and of itself. For example, if the Hutts paid the hunter more to keep things hush-hush Vette could end up broke or dead or both. Information brokers pose a similar risk, as few of them are truly independent, and those that are charge exorbitant fees. If that’s the only option, Vette will pay, but she doesn’t know how she’d legally get her hands on that sort of cash, and she’s really reluctant to land herself in hot water with the Sith. Which means she’d have to go back to stealing, and that’s never been a lucrative revenue stream for her.

“Argh.” She bangs her head against Horizon’s console.

She knows that it’s going to look like a bigger problem than it is while Gimrizh is unconcious. Once the boss wakes up, she’ll be able to focus better or think it through properly - or something like that.

Curled up like this, it’s easy to tell when her holo goes off less than an inch from her ear.

She presses the ‘accept call’ button with one limp finger. “Hello?”

“You’re not dead!”

Her head snaps up fast enough for something in her neck to crack painfully. She fumbles for the holo and tugs it close to her chest, letting the blue image fill the field as she stares in wonder at just who it is. “Taunt?”

“I know, I’ve gotten cuter since you’ve last seen me,” Taunt replies with a wink. “How’s my little sis been since she dropped off the grid?”

“Great fucking Winds, Taunt, I didn’t do that willingly. I dropped off the grid because I had all my shit confiscated and then probably either destroyed or traced. And now I am back on the grid, in a very official manner, I swear.”

She laughs. “How official can you possibly be?”

It takes only a moment of thought for Vette to consider and then toss out the possibility of telling Taunt she works for the Empire now. That sort of thing wouldn’t go over quite so well over the holo, and if she tells her sister in person, at least she can control the inevitable annoyance. “Eh. You’d be surprised. How’ve you been? How’s the gang, how’s the work?”

“Actually,” Taunt admits, “that’s half the reason I’ve called. We just touched down on Nar Shaddaa and heard from Darun that you’d showed up months ago - “ Her lips split into an enthused grin, “But the reason we stopped on Nar Shaddaa in the first place wasn’t because our job was finished. It’s cause an old friend of ours is going to be showing up here soon.”

“Old friend? What do you mean?”

“Well, I say friend - Cada Bliss.”

Vette does not usually consider herself to be big on revenge. The most she usually does is a good verbal evisceration or slicing their credit accounts, and it takes a certain level of asshole to get into that elite group of people who need retaliation. Cada Bliss is one such bastard. “That motherfucker.”

“Yup.”

“What’s he showing his backstabbing face for?”

Taunt’s practically vibrating with glee. “Guess, guess - oh wait, you’ll never guess - it’s the Star of Kala’unn!”

“Holy shit.”

“Right?”

“We -” Vette pauses. “We’re going to steal the Star of Kala’unn from him.”

“Of course.”

“Do we have a buyer? Anyone who can handle transport?”

“Don’t worry about that. We’ve got a private collector who works on securing and repatriating Ryloth artifacts lined up already. He’s the guy we handed Imarani jewelry off to that one time, remember? And Plasmajack says he’s fine doing the transport job himself. He knows a smuggler or two who can help out. So, can you do it?”

The enthusiastic confirmation is on the tip of her tongue. “Maybe. Give me a few more days to get back to you?”

Taunt frowns, clearly expecting to hear the ‘yes’ just as much as Vette had been expecting to say it. “Sure. Darun did say you’re working with a different crew now - do you have a different job lined up? Cause I didn’t think you were the type to go for credits over Ryloth.”

“I’m not! That’s not it at all. It’s just - force, I don’t want to say ‘it’s complicated’ but it is. I’ll explain in person, but I will try my damndest to get there in time to punch Cada Bliss in his smarmy face.” Vette gives her older sister a thumbs up. “Even if I have to work overtime for like five years in payment.”

“Oh, so it’s that sort of official. Got it.” Taunt sighs, although there’s no real blame in her eyes. “Even if you can’t for the Star - come back to Nar Shaddaa soon, okay? We miss you, and I’m sure we could steal something insane with your help again.”

Vette wants to. Oh force she wants to. The Empire is luring her to its side with the promise of information and Gimrizh’s slow kindness. Like a bad seduction holofilm. Come join the Empire, we have cookies.

“I miss you too,” Vette replies instead. “Tell Flash and Plasmajack that I miss them and all that, and don’t punch Cada Bliss till I give you a definite answer, kay?”

Taunt turns around her shoulder to look at something out of the holo’s range. “Actually, if you have a few more minutes to stay on the line, you can tell them yourself. They’re back from scrounging up some dinner.”

“How are my boys!?” Vette demands, as loudly as she possibly can.

~*~

Thutrel apologizes to Kira for his delay in returning to Penumbra and then quickly sequesters himself away into his quarters. As much as he trusts her, this is a family matter. And he’s a bit too shocked to be anything but with family at the moment.

He opens up the Republic databases, puts in his clearance codes - not as a knight, but as a direct relative of a Jedi Council member, and then runs a search for a Sith named Gimrizh Korribanil. He has no idea what information the Republic might have on her, but if he can find anything at all that links back to Yaina…

Even though it’s midday on Coruscant, in the middle of what must be a busy workday, he calls his aunt.

“Thutrel?”

Yulair Rineth is a tall, thin woman in her sixties. Over the years, Thutrel has tried to imitate almost everything about her, from her immaculate robes, to her tied back hair, and down to the perfectly straight posture that she manages to hold at all times. She has always managed to look tighter than him. Thutrel becomes loose and messy after so much as a few hours of doing nothing. He remembers holovids from the war where Yulair had spent days in the field and not so much as a single hair was out of place.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he says on instinct.

“You aren’t. Council just adjourned, so I should have a few moments to spare,” she replies. “Is there something I can assist you with?”

Something between nervousness and elation roils in his stomach. “I found - er - I encountered a Sith today. She knows Yaina. Yaina’s still with the Sith - she’s still in the Empire - I think we must have been correct in thinking she was taken to Korriban. But this is proof that we can still get her back!”

There’s a long pause. Nothing in Yulair’s face changes. “I see. I would be cautious about trusting the word of a Sith.”

“It wasn’t like that.” If Gimrizh had been acting, that would have been unreal. No one is that good. And beyond that, he could feel the sincerity of her emotions in the force. She’d kept everything so close to her chest and it had been unexpectedly difficult to get even a slight read on her, but what little he’d felt had held no lie. The force didn’t contradict a single word that came out of her mouth. “I know she wasn’t lying. She can help us find Yaina.”

“You have a job to do,” Yulair says slowly. “You are not a padawan any longer, you cannot to abandon your duties to go tearing through the galaxy and expect only a slap on the wrist.”

He sighs. “You never let me do that, even as a padawan.”

“You needed that slap on the wrist. I can’t believe you still do.”

“If I get Yaina back, it will be worth it.”

“I know you want to see your cousin again, but these emotional attachments will make you weak. They have already made you distracted. You almost fell as a teenager, you cannot risk that now that you are a knight yourself. There is too much on the line for you to toy with the seductive emotions of the dark side.”

His one failing as a Jedi has always been his weakness at severing such bonds. It stings that his aunt still has to remind him of such things. “I learned that lesson, I promise. Think of it beyond family then. Wouldn’t you try and retrieve another Jedi of the Republic who had been captured?”

Yulair’s eyes grow the faintest bit weary, a barely there emotion that the holo’s light makes all the more difficult to catch. “You must consider that perhaps Yaina does not want you to come and fetch her like you did when you were children. She has been with the Sith for almost eleven years now. The Sith ways are insidious, seditious, and to fight off those efforts for so long is nigh impossible. It is most likely that Yaina is a Sith herself now, and that she is purposefully hiding herself from our sight.”

“That’s not true.”

“You have no way of proving it isn’t.”

It’s unfortunate that he has no way of proving his aunt wrong. “Either way, we don’t know, and the force tells me that Yaina would not have surrendered to the dark side so easily.”

“She was disillusioned with the light side, even as a child,” she reminds him. “I know you have a blind side when it comes to her, but you can’t have forgotten that.”

He winces away from the holo. “Sorry. You’re right, master.”

There’s something light in her face, the closest she ever gets to a smile. “I haven’t been your master for a long time. The days when I could take you aside for lessons are long past, and I must trust in your ability to remember and improve upon what I taught you. I simply do not wish to see you go down that dark path.”

“I won’t,” he promises, “But she’s still my cousin.”

“And she is my niece. I cannot change that - I will not. But you are the only family I know I have left.”

Thutrel can’t help but smile at that. Some days it’s hard to remember that his aunt does care about him, and about Yaina. The Jedi Order is understandably cautious when it comes to emotion, and as one of the longest sitting members of the Jedi Council, Yulair has taken that warning to heart. Not that he can blame her, after she lost all her family but him in one fell swoop.

“I know. I’ll be careful,” he replies.

She gives him a knowing look. “Even if I order you otherwise, you will keep looking for her, won’t you?”

“I can’t not.”

~*~

Painful white light streams in through Gimrizh’s eyes. It is how she imagines the light side of the force would feel, blinding in it’s blankness, like a bleach stain. Uncomfortably clean, as if the world has been unnaturally scoured.

Substance is breathed back into her world with the sound of fast tapping, as if someone is anxiously drumming their finger against something steady. She focuses on that while her eyes adjust to the light and the rest of her senses manage to catch up. Slowly she picks out other things - the hums and beeps of medical machines and the sharp smell of a vaguely citrusy disinfectant.

She looks up. Quinn is at her side, frowning at a holo screen and absently tapping out that fast rhythm against the back of his datapad.

“Wh-what - “ Stars, her throat is sand and dust, “ - happened?”

Quinn’s eyes snap up to her and widen in surprise and also - relief? Or is she just being hopeful? “My lord! You’re awake - “ he turns to someone she can’t see, “She’s awake. How is she - my lord, how are you feeling?”

A ‘fine’ hovers on the edge of her tongue. When she closes her eyes, she can still see Thutrel, desperation writ across his face, as he begs her for news about Yaina.

“I’ll be fine,” she says instead, a promise to herself.

One of the white curtains around her bed is pushed back and a woman in spectacles and a white doctor’s coat steps in. She takes a quick look at Gimrizh and then a much longer look at the holo readout of one of the scanners Gimrizh is hooked up to. “I can’t see any lasting damage, and now that you’re awake you should be fine from here on out. Make sure you get yourself to a hospital if you start experiencing any sort of memory problems, eyesight problems - general stuff like that.”

She frowns at Quinn. “Damage? Besides my leg?”

“You were badly concussed, my lord. You’ve been out for almost a day now,” he informs her.

The doctor points a stern finger at both of them. “You should know enough to spot any signs of a relapse, and you,” she says with a glare at Gimrizh, “should make a valiant effort not to so much as bump your head for another month. Take slow acting kolto tablets twice a day for a week, drink plenty of fluids, and if you get concussed again I’ll be very displeased.”

Then she leaves as suddenly as she arrives.

“Who…?”

“House Thul’s neuro-specialist, my lord.” Quinn can’t quite meet her gaze. “I must apologize. It was careless oversight on my part that allowed you to become so badly injured in the first place. As your medical officer, I should have been more aware of your state, and I should have administered what first aid I could to treat your concussion before it rendered you unconscious. I can’t ask for your forgiveness, but I assure you I will do everything I can to prevent such a situation from occurring again.”

There’s nothing to forgive. It’s not his fault it’s - it’s Thutrel’s. If he hadn’t shown up - If he hadn’t shown up, she might very well be dead.

No, that’s not true. She would have made it. Both she and Quinn would have made it out alive, giant droid or no. If Thutrel hadn’t shown up she and Quinn wouldn't have been distracted, and one of them would have noticed that her injuries were worse than they seemed, and hells they might have already been on their way to the Willsaams by now.

“You aren’t to blame,” she says. Her throat stops complaining when she talks, just like waking up after a long night’s sleep.

“As your medic, I am.”

“You aren’t infallible, Quinn. I could hardly expect that of you, or punish you for such a simple oversight. We’re sentient after all, not droids. Neither of us are perfect.”

His smile is so slight that she almost misses it. “Thank you for saying so, my lord.”

Someone knocks loudly against the door.

Gimrizh pushes herself up so that at least she’s sitting and can retain some dignity in that manner. It’s a good thing she does, because before Quinn can get up to open the doors, they slide open and in steps Kendoh, flanked by his bodyguards, with a sour frown on his lips. Her stomach drops - she can’t deal with him right now.

“I heard that you’d returned from dealing with General Organa,” Kendoh begins. “May I congratulate you on your victory - “

“You may.” She cuts him off before he can get started on what is sure to be another time wasting attempt to court her favor - and thus court Lady Renata into Thul custody. His particular brand of oily manipulation just seems so tiresome at the moment, a game that she is too exhausted to play and too angry to put up with. “If that’s all you came to say, I’m afraid that I’d prefer to continue this later. I’m a tad occupied at the moment.”

He straightens up in the bristly manner of a predator trying to appear larger than its prey. “I do, in fact, have something that I wish to discuss with you. I haven’t heard any news of Lady Renata being in our custody. Where exactly in House Thul did you bring her to?”

This charade is over. She can’t keep it up any more. “I dealt with Lady Renata over a week ago and concluded that she knew nothing of value.”

“What? You mean she’s - “

“Safely hiding somewhere along the Apalis Coast by now, I’d say.”

“How dare you deny my claim to Renata - “

“I dared rather easily, actually.”

Kendoh’s face turns red. He jabs a finger in her face. “You should not be so quick to mark me as an enemy. Don’t forget that my generosity allows you to remain in House Thul, and on Alderaan. You might be a Sith, but the Empire does not technically stand with House Thul - you cannot throw your title around here.”

Before she can figure out what best will get him to fuck off, Quinn slides Kendoh a glare and says pointedly, “House Thul is trying to court favor with the Empire, and you believe that would be helped by purposefully antagonizing a Sith? Over something as meaningless as refusing to take an innocent civilian woman captive for your entertainment? I’m certain that will go over well with your superiors in House Thul.”

“And,” she adds in, “you’re assuming that no one else in House Thul - or one of the minor houses aligned with yours - would be happy to get on a Sith’s good side.”

His anger simmers into a slow boil. “You are forgetting that you are but a low ranked Sith, and that I am a Duke. I would take care, if I were you, and not interfere with my claim on Renata again.”

Gimrizh points her finger at the door as best she can with an IV needle still in her arm. “She is not yours to claim. Now good day to you, Duke Kendoh. I will inform you when I have secured my real objective on Alderaan, out of a desire to honor the agreement you made with Darth Baras.”

With his nose in the air, Kendoh strides out of the room.

“How much of a threat is he, actually?” she asks Quinn as soon as the duke is out of earshot. Her head aches from dealing with all - all this.

“Not enough of one to significantly impact our mission here.”

Then she won’t spare him any effort at the moment. “Help me get up?”

“You haven’t been discharged yet.”

“I have been in a hospital bed apparently for a full day. Get me out of here - we’ve a job to do.”

“Not until after I’ve completed my own scans. I want to be assured you’re well enough to be on your feet, given what happened earlier due to my own negligence.”

“Oh fine.”

For a solid ten minutes, Quinn runs a series of scans on her head that she assumes must come back with positive results because after those ten minutes he reluctantly unhooks her from the machines. He offers her his hand as her bare feet tap against the medbay’s floor.

Someone - probably Vette - has brought her a fresh set of clothes that she gratefully changes into, ducking behind one of the white curtains and kicking off the bloodstained wreck she’d been wearing for so long. Her boots are written off as a loss, but they’d been part of her Institute uniform to begin with, and she has a pair of nice, synthleather ones on Horizon that she’s been putting off wearing for a month now.

“Has there been any progress on the Willsaam hunt while I’ve been out?” she asks, tugging her overshirt on and securing it with her belt. Before they leave again, she should really take a cloak with her. Alderaan can be damn cold in parts.

“No, my lord.” Through the curtain, she can see his shadow double checking his datapad. “I had Vette confirm the information General Organa provided, although all she was able to discern was that there’s nothing to disprove the general. In light of that, I’ve used what information we have on House Organa’s base of operations to pinpoint the Willsaams’ location.”

“And the general?”

“Vette took the liberty of placing a data spike in the general’s base. Until they find it, they’ll have no way of knowing that their communications to House Organa are going astray.”

The Willsaams won’t know she’s coming. “Good. Are we to head out immediately?”

“With all due respect, my lord, you aren’t going anywhere on that leg for another full day.”

Damn it, no! She wants to hack and slash, to cut away at Thutrel’s words. To purge them from herself through blood and rage - as she was taught since she was a child. As the dark side teaches.

Because if she has to sit still she can’t help but think about what he’d said, about the sadness in his eyes that’s not the same as her’s, not so deep, not so broken, still filled with hope. A desperate, pure longing. She hates him for that. He is a Jedi, how dare he look so vibrant and alive when all other Jedi seem partially carved, as if they are more statue than person. That she can deal with - she can’t deal with his bright smile that is so exactly like Yaina’s.

She wants to work herself to the bone until there is nothing left but the steady consistent chant of Qotsisajak, the Sith Code.

“I see,” she says at last. Her voice wavers, even in her own ears. “I’ll - I’ll head back to our rooms, please don’t disturb me.”

She needs to be alone to think right now.

~*~

Horizon is quiet and empty as Malavai types up his report to Baras. Lord Gimrizh and Vette are back at the rooms in House Thul and it makes for an uncomfortable silence punctuated only by the whirr of the terminal and the click of his lightpen against the datapad.

Every statement he puts down has to be carefully considered and he goes over every sentence twice, changing words here and there. He still isn’t sure what to include in his report and what to leave out, even as he writes.

The two Jedi left alive on Tatooine go in, because he doesn’t have a choice about that. They’re enemies of the Empire and writing them off as dead or unaccounted for is an active danger. He details their work on Alderaan, painting Gimrizh in as flattering a manner as he can. Even describing the mission to aid the Republic forces he tries to stress the strategic necessity of Gimrizh’s decision. He includes the encounter with the Jedi Thutrel, but doesn't mention how Gimrizh reacted.

That’s a tricky sentence to write. Explaining that his commanding officer had an outright panic attack in the middle of a field mission is never an easy thing to explain. So he leaves it out. He puts down 'negative reaction to the Jedi's presence' and nothing further.

He's not an idiot, he knows that whatever he tells Baras will have a significant impact on both the lord Gimrizh's career and her life. He has to remain as professional as possible, while taking into account that close proximity to her will allow him insight into her motives that’s more difficult to convey through a formal report.

If she is expressing anti-Imperial sentiments, well then that's another matter. But so far, Malavai's pretty certain that despite her questionable decisions, she does have the glory of the Empire in mind when she works. Sometimes he disagrees with her methodology until he sees the benefits it reaps, but that's to be expected and it can't be the only reason leading up to a condemning report. She's actually one of the most reasonable commanders he's served under. Pity, that she's just Lord Baras' apprentice.

He sends the report on to Baras and it's no longer in his hands.

Before leaving Horizon, he checks on the location of the SIS agent, Voloren. He's been running a tracking algorithm designed to pinpoint the agent’s location ever since Malavai heard of the agent's sighting on Lothal a week ago.

All the data points to Voloren being on Hutta - a data flag had been pinged a few days ago. From the patterns Malavai’s been able to discern, it’s very likely that Voloren will remain on Hutta for at least a month, if not two.

The thought of finally closing the books on Voloren is very tempting. He’d hated the man for slipping through his fingers during the war and it had always infuriated him that he’d never been able to send enough information to Imperial Intelligence fast enough for the spy to be dealt with. Perhaps he should ask for a temporary leave of absence to deal with the agent? Surely Lord Gimrizh wouldn’t deny the chance to kill an enemy of the Empire.

Maybe once they have finished hunting down Jaesa Willsaam - although he’s uncertain what will happen when that task is done.

Either way, the information gets wrapped up into a data package. He powers down the ship before leaving and make his way back through the streets of the House Thul capital.

Night has fallen while he was busy making his report. Alderaan has a sky full of bright stars with one luminous moon hanging in space above the city. Compared to the trash bin of Nar Shaddaa, it's relatively easy to see stars on Alderaan. Even though there are massive cities on the planet, they are scattered around and interspersed with vast areas of uninhabited forests and mountain ranges. The light pollution is low enough to allow the stars to shine through.

He's still considering the problem that is Voloren when he arrives in the House Thul suite.

It's silent inside as well. Vette is sitting on the couch, absently flipping through the pages of a holo novel. From the looks of it - Gimrizh has returned as well, her lightsaber belt is left on the table.

Vette jumps to her feet as soon as he’s through the door and shoots him a look. With a nervous patter of feet, she scurries over to his side. “What the hells happened?” she whispers.

“What?” He doesn’t understand what’s going on, “Has something happened?”

“I don’t know!” Vette complains under her breath, “Something happened when you guys were out and I don’t know if it happened after she woke up or - there is something really wrong with the boss. She looked dead when she walked in and when I tried to hug her-”

His eyes narrow. “You tried to hug Lord Gimrizh?”

“Shut up, I’ve done it plenty of times before,” she mutters, “But she almost punched me this time! And when she missed it was like… like she didn’t even know she had done it. And then she just said sorry and went out on the balcony and she hasn’t said a word or even moved since! There’s something seriously wrong and she’s not talking and I have no idea what happened during your mission or after her injury to make her like this. Do something!”

He can see deep and serious worry on Vette’s face and he knows she’s right, even though it pains him to say it. Gimrizh hadn’t been fine when they left the field and being so severely injured could only have worsened her condition instead of improving it. “I’ll try and speak with her,” he reassures Vette.

She sighs in relief. “Thank you. I’m not - I don’t get her sometimes. And if I don’t know what happened - she won’t tell me - I’m not going to be very good at this.”

“Go back to your work,” he tells her. “It would be best if I try and speak with her alone. I’m not sure what she would like revealed to you and what she would prefer to keep hidden.”

Vette gives him a sharp nod and then disappears into her room with a click of a lock. The balcony door is still open and when he glances over he can see the edge of Gimrizh’s boot near the door.

"My lord?" he asks, stepping out on the balcony.

She's curled up in a ball near the door, her back against the outside wall and her knees tucked close to her chest. Her eyes stare blankly out at the city and she doesn't look up when he arrives. He’s seen something similar in soldiers before, after a battle went from bad to worse. It doesn't bode well to see the same look on her. For some reason he had assumed her to be more untouchable than that. Another mistake on his part.

"Are you alright?" he tries again, worried by her unresponsive state.

She still doesn't move, but she does give him a short, bitter laugh. "Not really."

At least she's honest. "Is there anything I can do, my lord?"

"No- maybe- I don't know," she says distantly, like he’s hearing her from behind a curtain. "Can you... stay?"

Contact with others can help with recovery from a shock like the one she received earlier in the day. He never focused much on the psychological side of medicine, but he knows enough to understand that leaving her alone might not be the best course of action. He sits down on the bench across from her and tries not to focus on the fact that she's huddled on the ground instead of using the available seating. "Of course, my lord."

"And don't call me that," she mutters. "Just. Just not now. In the morning."

He sighs, but relents to her request. She's clearly not completely stable right now, it would be counterproductive for him to push her. "Very well.”

Gimrizh goes silent again before switching topics, “Do you have any family?”

That’s not the question he expected from her. Although to be honest, it’s difficult to expect anything from her when he’s never seen her like this before. “Yes,” he answers, deciding that the best thing right now is just to be honest and hope that it helps whatever state of mind she’s struggling through, “I have a younger brother.”

“No parents?”

“My mother and father served in the military as well. They were killed during the war.”

Guilt floods into her eyes and she lowers her head minutely. “I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for, my lo-” he catches himself and cuts his sentence short. “It was many years ago and it was a common occurrence during the war. Nothing more can be said about them that would require an apology.”

She’s absently tugging on her hair. “You had a photo of your brother - on your desk in Balmorra. I didn’t mean to pry, but it was the only personal thing you had there.”

It’s not prying if he left it out. Honestly, he’s surprised she even remembered that holo. “Yes, that’s him.”

“Tell me about your brother?” she requests quietly.

What could she possibly learn from him that she couldn’t find out from reading his file? “Forgive me, but why do you want to know?”

Her head turns to the side, away from him. “I feel like you know everything about me. In contrast, I know almost nothing about you. I’d like to change that, at least a little.”

The irony isn’t lost on him. He feels that it’s the other way around, that he has no idea who she really is or what she wants. Perhaps if she learns more about him, he will learn more about her - and he thinks it’s not an idea that he particularly minds. He doesn’t object to the thought of her learning more about him, not at all. Which is unusual.

“My brother,” he says at last, “is named Lucian. He’s five years my junior. He attended the same military academy on Dromund Kaas that I did, and currently serves as a pilot aboard the Harrower Prominence.”

“He flies an ISF?” Gimrizh asks in a whispered voice.

He considers the photo of Lucian standing in front of his first crashed fighter, grinning sheepishly at the camera and giving a thumbs up. That’s probably not the best snapshot of his brother’s life that he can give her. “He was top of his class when he graduated and has served with distinction since then.”

“You’re proud of him?”

He is, very much so. “He’s quite accomplished.”

Her fingers fiddle with bandage wrapped around her hand, “What’s he like?”

“Kind,” and it says a lot about Lucian that that’s the first word Malavai can think of. “Determined and clever when he wants to be. He… accomplishes his goals without much thought for limitations and obstacles. I suppose he is rather reckless, although he does have a knack for getting out of all the trouble he gets into.”

She moves her head up a bit. “Was he like that when he was younger?”

“Worse,” Malavai admits with a tiny smile. “When he was seventeen he got arrested for flying without a license. It was his fifth offense and I had to take a leave of absence and travel from Balmorra to Dromund Kaas in order to pay bail. Fortunately, he ceased most of that behavior once he joined the navy.”

Lucian stopped as far as he knows, that is.

That Jedi, Thutrel, had been talking about his family, he remembers. Just before Gimrizh had snapped, the Jedi spoke his family name. Perhaps that’s the root of the problem? Does Gimrizh even have any family, any from Korriban that is close enough to count? “May I ask...,” he begins cautiously, “do you have any family?”

Her shoulders tense and her head ducks between her knees. “I- I was taken from my parents when I was young. I don’t remember them. You know that.”

“I remember,” he agrees, but he’s clearly close to the problem and that’s not it. “But - and please forgive my forwardness - that wasn’t quite my question.”

She doesn’t say anything. The silence stretches out between them and Malavai regrets ever asking. He’s about to get up and leave her to her thoughts when she finally speaks up.

“I had a sister,” she says, her flat monotone cracking like shattered glass.

Past tense. Had a sister. “I am… very sorry.”

“She wasn’t… we weren’t… She wasn’t related to me,” Gimrizh murmurs. “She was… she was Mirialan.”

“You knew the cousin the Jedi was referring to?” It seems so ridiculous, absurd even, but there was no way for her to fake this level of sheer brokenness.

Yaina. Her name was Yaina.”

“And you were close?” he asks, trying to coax out whatever is burning away at the front of her mind.

“We were - she was my sister.” She chokes on her words like they’re poisonous. “We were together since we were eleven and we - we were the only sub-species in our class so we just did everything together. We were - she - ” she drags her bandaged hand across her cheeks. “She designed my tattoos.”

He reaches a hand out, but remembers what Vette said earlier and stops before he touches her.

“There were - there were difficulties,” Gimrizh says flatly, “She had issues, with the force - with the dark side, and that’s almost a death sentence in the Institutes. I didn’t listen to her - no one did - and I was so horrible to her and I didn’t notice when things got bad. She ran and I- I-”

Only a fraction of the words that spill from her lips are comprehensible. “She was… killed?” he tries to guess.

She shakes her head and finally looks up at him, her yellow eyes puffy and red. “She put a lightsaber through her head,” she admits.

Suicide? Malavai flinches at the thought and then pales as he imagines Lucian doing the same.

“She just - ” She puts her hand to the bottom on her chin and wraps her fingers around a lightsaber that exists only in her own mind. “Right in front of me. We were in the desert - I - I had to carry her back.”

“Ah.” A nebulous comprehension slowly creeps up on him. “How long ago did she die?”

“We were nineteen,” she whispers.

Not long ago at all then, only a few years. And if she’s never talked to anyone about this before, it would explain why so little as a name would have sent her reeling. He awkwardly kneels in front of her and slowly places a hand on her shoulder. “I sincerely apologize for your loss. It won’t make it better, but I am sorry that you had to go through that.”

She doesn’t do anything more than flinch, which is a good deal better than trying to punch him, “It was all my fault, Quinn. I always ruin everything. She was - she was - she was so much better than me. It was like she was this far off, beautiful, amazing, wonderful person and sometimes I couldn’t even figure out why she bothered with someone like me. And then she was just - not there. I don’t know what to do without her. I don’t know who I am anymore.”

“If it helps,” he tries, “I think you’ve been doing quite well. You are a capable and skilled commander, and very successful.”

She shakes her head slowly at him. “I’m really not.”

“If you're disinclined to believe me, I doubt there’s anything I can say to change your mind,” he says.

She drops her head into her lap again and Malavai moves to sit next to her. For a long time, neither of them say anything, they just sit there is silence. By sitting on the ground like this he's ruining his uniform, but he can't find it in himself to care much. His concern right now is making sure that she's alright. Which so far - He can't say for sure. He doesn't know if she'll be alright, but he doesn't know what else to do without making things worse.

And he's not used to seeing her like this. She usually gives off such a perfect image of poise and power that seeing her broken like this is rather nerve wracking. It's easier for him, for his mission for Baras, if he sees her as a cutout figure of a Sith. The person he thought he met on Balmorra was the epitome of what the Empire stood for; efficient, strong, obedient. He is, after all, spying on her for Baras. Imagining her as that idea of a person is easy. Realizing that she's real, whether he wants to act like it or not, is far more difficult.

He's run infiltration and information gathering details before. One of the first things he learned is that you have to see your targets as just that - targets. Not people. Dehumanize them. It was simple enough to do at first, especially considering that she's not a human. But now it's difficult. She forces him to see who's behind the Sith mask. Once you start to empathize with the target an operative is lost.

He can't let himself become confused about his mission goals. He's here to report on her, nothing more. And yet Baras explicitly asked him to find out where her loyalties lie, about her personality, who she is. He's unused to this and he greatly dislikes being so out of control.

He catches sight of a familiar star in the sky and raises a finger to point at it, "That's Rion Prime," he tells her, "Can you see it?"

She drags her head up to stare at the star, and then blinks slowly, "Arda," she remembers distantly, "The third moon of Rion."

"The brightest object in its sector," he confirms.

She hums thoughtfully to herself and falls quiet again, this time staring at the star instead of down at her hands.

After the moon has dragged itself over a few degrees of sky, he sighs and says, "You should probably get some sleep.”

“I know,” she agrees, wiping at her eyes with the hem of her shirt, and he pretends not to notice. “I’m sorry.”

He stands and holds out his hand to her. After a moment, she takes it and lets him pull her up, “You have nothing to be sorry for,” he tells her firmly.

“Still…” she hesitates, following as he leads her back inside. She’s exhausted enough that she allows Malavai to direct her to her room without protest. “Thank you,” she says, standing at her bedroom door, “For telling me about your brother.”

He bows and finds that he honestly means it when he says, “Anytime, my lord,”

~*~

The tower they’re searching for is at the very edge of the Glarus valley, tucked into the mountain ridge before the Apalis Coast. They’re spitting distance from the heart of Republic territory, but far enough away that the guard perimeter is lighter, and less well partrolled.

“Holo cams set to avoid our position for the next twenty minutes,” Vette whispers. “Bless that tap I put on Organa’s stuff. May she never notice it’s there.”

Quinn has his back pressed against one of the trees they’re using as cover, his blaster drawn. Vette is hastily typing away on her datapad as she gets the security systems down. A guard station is only a few meters away, with just two faint signatures inside. Neither of them are force users. Easy targets.

The weight of Gimrizh’s lightsaber in her hand is comforting, the thrum of the dark side reverberating through her bones. She needs this, needs the violence, the aggression, the release of combat. “Let’s go.”

After her first steps beyond the tree line, the guards spot them.

Gimrizh kills them without thinking. It feels a bit like hacking away at Thutrel’s words, but it doesn’t make her feel less horrid even as the dark side sings in her. It just leaves two dead bodies for her to step over as she continues to penetrate the compound.

They have to continue in mostly a straight line, with Vette pointing out the security blind spots that she’s set up for them. When Gimrizh reaches the tower’s back entrance, she kicks down a door and uses the force to prop the entryway open as her companions follow her inside. This section of the tower isn’t quite as obviously opulent as she has come to expect, partly due to the overturned tables that a troop of house guards are hiding behind. Apparently they did get the message when the patrol died.

Quinn lobs a smoke bomb over the top of their barricade and the ensuing chaos makes it easy for Gimrizh to slip through and kill them, the bright red of her blade barely visible through the smoke.

Three bodies fall to the ground and they move on through the tower complex. It’s oddly silent inside, behind the whir of a distant generator and muffled outside noises, there’s only the sound of their own footsteps echoing through the halls.

There’s another guard up ahead, pacing in front of a large circular room that hums with the feeling of people, like a nexus of energy in the force. Even if it weren’t for the nervous signal Vette gives to point out the correct room, something in the force is nudging Gimrizh in this direction.

She doesn’t bother to do much, she just walks up and runs the guard through with her lightsaber, easily deflecting every shot he tries to pin her with.

Two guards rush her as she strides carelessly into the room. Both are sent flying into the walls with a flick of her wrist. The second tug of the force rips their weapons from their hands and crushes the blasters into hunks of metal. It’s as though the dark side is curling beneath her skin, demanding to be let out.

Her senses were true, there are three people in the room, excluding the two now unconscious guards. Jaesa Willsaam’s parents are there, a willowy woman who must be Parvin and a stocky man who steps in front of his wife, that’s Gregor. But there’s a third person there are well, dressed in Jedi robes and with a lightsaber hilt already in his hand.

She does not want to deal with another krething Jedi.

She gives a signal, sending Vette and Quinn out to loosely circle the group, leaving her facing the Jedi directly.

Parvin gasps and steps backwards to hang behind her husband. “Gregor! Jaesa’s warning - !”

“I didn’t think she was right,” Gregor whispers, clutching his wife’s hand.

The Jedi moves to defend the two civilians, his lightsaber a cold flash of metal behind the beige robes. “I am Volryder, a Jedi Master. Consider yourself warned, Sith. You will not harm the Willsaams, I shall not allow it.”

“Please,” Gregor asks, his voice shaking like a leaf as he holds out a hand to stop the Jedi, “If we have been the cause of such death, I want to know why.”

Volryder slowly steps back. “Fine. Say your piece, Sith. I’m not going anywhere and I will protect them, no matter what. If you do anything to them, I will not hesitate.”

Hm - What would be the best thing to do to these people to convince Jaesa Willsaam to join the Sith Order? Pointless death causes more confusion than anything else. The goal is to make her see the truth of the matter, that there is no place for her but with the Empire, even though the situation is so muddled, even to Gimrizh’s own eyes. Killing her parents would just set the woman more firmly on the side of the Jedi. If nothing else, that can be used as blackmail.

“I’m here to do things for them, not to them,” she says, her thoughts so muddled that it’s difficult to think what the best course of action is.

Jaesa’s father still regards her with heavy suspicion. “What is it you want?”

“Sith…” Parvin pleads, “Jaesa was our life, she was going to marry into Alderaanian nobility, so that we would no longer be servants. When she left, we sacrificed that dream. We don’t know anything about Jaesa now, we were told we would never see her again. We’re just servants. What could you want with us?”

There’s her opening. Whatever it takes to get Jaesa’s parents into Imperial arms - willingly if preferable. Even though part of Gimrizh wants the Jedi to attack, just so that she can cut him down.

She gestures at the couches behind the Willsaams. “Why don’t we have a seat and talk this out like civilized people?” A sharp look gets thrown at the Jedi. “That is what the Republic enjoys bragging about, is it not? How it’s so much more civilized than the Empire, with it’s brutish Sith Order?”

Volryder blinks at her before returning to the usual Jedi lines. “Sith are devious, and - “

“Yes, yes, and you’re a hypocrite,” she snaps. She strides past him and takes a seat across from a small coffee table, and then waves the Willsaams over. “Join me, why don’t you? I’m sure we can make this rather more pleasant if we do it my way - your Jedi seems rather hellbent on bloodshed.”

There’s a long pause. She lets her eyes dart over to Quinn, just for a brief moment, and then steels herself. This will work. If it comes to a fight, the three of them can overwhelm the Jedi and there’s no way that the Willsaams have any sort of combat training. And they have weaknesses too, there’s no doubt about that. Jaesa’s been long gone from their lives, how much loyalty do they still have to her? They’ve been servants their whole lives, riches would turn them over, surely. Or perhaps the promise of continued security, of ensuring that they will no longer be hunted and that no harm will come to them under the Imperial banner.

The first to join her is Gregor, cautiously sitting down across from her. After another moment, Parvin nervously and stiffly joins him, her back ramrod straight, as though she’s prepared to bolt at the first sign of a fight.

“As you no doubt know,” Gimrizh begins, without waiting for the Jedi to decide if he’s going to attack or not, “your daughter is caught up a storm caused by her master, Jedi Master Nomen Karr. I’m here to secure your safety, as well as hers.”

Volryder tries again. “Padawan Willsaam sent a warning for this exact reason -”

“Your daughter doesn’t know the true scope of the situation,” she cuts in. “I’m not sure what she thinks of my intentions, but I am not going to harm her. Nor am I going to harm you.”

“Secure our safety -” Parvin draws herself up with a fury, “You no good scum! You want us to betray our daughter?”

Gimrizh shakes her head. “As I said, the true scope of the situation is rather more complicated. For that matter, when was the last time you even saw your daughter? Have you been allowed contact with her? Could you pick her out in a crowd? If none of this had happened - if Jaesa continues to remain with the Jedi Order - when do you think the Jedi will allow you to see her again?”

“That doesn’t seen - “ Gregor clears his throat, apparently suddenly conscious of the Jedi standing behind him. “We haven’t spoken to her because she’s been in training. Nomen Karr told us that perhaps once she was done…”

“A lie, pure and simple, I’m afraid. The Jedi preach detachment, abandonment - they purge emotional bonds out of fear, and they would teach Jaesa to do the same. Once her training is done and she’s allowed to contact you, she won’t. The Order will have brainwashed her into thinking that any relationship with you is evil, or some such nonsense.”

“And you offer a way to what - to see Jaesa again?”

“I do.”

Parvin scoffs. “What does your way mean, pray tell? Selling Jaesa out?”

“Not at all,” Gimrizh replies, trying to keep her voice steady. She’s coming up with all this on the spot and her mind whirrs to come up with the next step. Dromund Kaas, she should have them go to the capital. They’ll be under Baras’ thumb, but they’ll be alive and serving the Empire. Just like she is, and just like she’s trying to get Jaesa to be. “All you need to do is accept my offer of passage into Imperial space.”

“We won’t become prisoners,” she snaps.

“I never said you would. I’ll ensure that you live comfortable, safe lives in the arms of the Empire. You will not want for money or security again.”

Gregor glances over at his wife - he’s convinced. “My dear, if the Jedi will keep us from Jaesa…”

She sighs deeply and then slowly nods her head. “Alright. My place is with you, Gregor. If this is the only way for us to be safe, and to see our daughter again, then I’ll do it.”

“Ahem,” Volryder interrupts, “I’m so glad you’ve all found an accord. But there’s still the matter of you being our enemy, Sith. Not only will I not allow the Willsaams to do this, but you’ve had yourself a killing spree getting here. That can’t go unpunished.”

It would be a great stress relief to kill a Jedi, but she’s still only walking on one good leg and she’s not - she’s not okay. Her hands are twitching unsteadily from her earlier experience and her nerves are drawn out and taunt. If he takes Quinn and Vette out of the picture, as Yonlach did, then she might not survive a fight with a Jedi master and that’s what makes up her mind. “Step down, Jedi, or everyone dies.”

Gregor steps in nervously. “Yes, Master Volryder. Stay true to the Jedi code and keep the peace. Too many have died already today. We go of our own free will and spare this house any further pain.”

Thank the stars, finally a use for the rubbish that makes up the Jedi code.

“This doesn’t sit right,” Volryder says finally, “But I can’t attack someone walking in peace. Even a Sith.”

“You just saved your life,” she bluffs with all the false confidence she can pull on. “I’m glad we could resolve this peacefully.”

He stares her down, “The code is everything, Sith, but I wouldn’t expect you to respect that.”

Any grudging respect she might have for Jedi revolves more around their combat prowess than their code. While some individual Jedi might be decent, they’re all corrupted by their code, buy the emotional vacancy and false sense of superiority that their order is steeped in. “Not particularly. I doubt that after being kept isolated from her family and used as Karr’s playing piece, Jaesa is overly fond of it either.”

His gaze narrows. “And how do you expect to leave with the Willsaams?”

A smirk slices across her lips. “Oh, that’s quite simple. You are going to turn around and let us leave out the way we came. I’m sure you can imagine all manner of terrible things befalling the Willsaams, should you call for an Organa guard that is far too trigger happy.”

He opens his mouth as if to protest and then grits his teeth. “Very well.”

“Thank you for being so civilized, Jedi.”

~*~

Vette awkwardly stands by as Gimrizh and Quinn hand the Willsaams off to an Imperial escort bound for Dromund Kaas.

A set of nearly identical Imperial guards greet them at the Rhu Caenas Spaceport, saluting Gimrizh in creepy unison. Is that what imps go to school for? To be taught how to do everything like a group of droids? She tries to entertain herself by imagining a small Quinn-droid buzzing around spouting Imperial propaganda, but her usual mirth is dampened by the events of Alderaan - by what they did yesterday.

Despite never having met Jaesa Willsaam, Vette can’t help but feel awful for what they’re doing to the woman. As much as Gimrizh is just a pawn of Baras, Jaesa must be similarly pinned in place by Karr. If those two big bads hate each other so much, they should just be tossed into a pit to fist fight it out, without dragging dozens of people in it. She can’t imagine how awful it must feel to be chased around the galaxy while enemies hunt down your family and your friends without reprieve.

It would be nice if she would let herself believe, just for a moment, that Gimrizh’s stated goal of reuniting Jaesa and her parents was actually what she wanted. Then Vette could feel at least a little bit of superiority about their actions. But she knows that Gimrizh doesn’t really care about that. She just took the path of least resistance. Vette can see a future, not too far off, where Gimrizh would care. Where it would matter to her. Vette’s moral compass is skewed, she knows, and far too easily swayed away from rules and laws, unlike Quinn’s. Vette has always felt a deep sense of right and wrong when it comes to people, on an individual level, and she can see the promise of that somewhere inside Gimrizh. The fact that they didn’t just kill the Willsaams is proof that some sense of morality exists in her.

“I admit, my lord,” Quinn says quietly. “I expected you to simply kill the Willsaams.”

“It would just make Jaesa Willsaam want nothing to do with the Sith,” Gimrizh explains as she leads them back to the docking bay they left Horizon in. Vette traipses behind, her hands in her pockets. She doesn’t think they know she can hear them. “If she can see how happy her parents have become, surely she’ll be more amenable to hear us out - if not to seek out that same comfort and security for herself. My mission is to turn her, not give her reason to despise the Empire.”

“No, my lord, I agree with you. I thought it was a clever move.”

“Really?” Gimrizh sounds so surprised, but also so flattered in a blushy nervous sort of way. Oh, it’s hidden under layers and layers of rough Sithyness, but Vette can hear it. She doesn’t think the captain can. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, I just made it up as I went along.”

“Then it was very inspired of you, my lord,” he corrects.

Ugh, get a room.

The upside to this is that Gimrizh genuinely looks better. A heavy ball of stress is still clearly sitting on her shoulders, and sure, she’d definitely been using their earlier infiltration as a way to work out her frustrations via lightsaber. But compared to how she was the other night, she seems much improved.

“So - we heading off world today then?” Vette asks as they traipse onboard Horizon.

Gimrizh shrugs. Her movements slow down as she calls Baras up on the holo, like she’s running out of energy with each moment. “Maybe.”

“We still haven’t dealt with that Jedi yet.”

“If that Jedi,” Quinn says, with surprising bitterness, “wishes to speak with Lord Gimrizh, then he had best spring his trap soon. Once we depart Alderaan he will have lost his only method of tracking us, and then one way or another he will not be a problem anymore.”

They both shut up when Gimrizh lifts a hand.

A second later, Baras’s blue image steps through into the holo light. “Apprentice,” he says, in that slimy voice of his that Vette hates so much. “I take it you have news?”

When Vette looks back, she can see that Gimrizh is already bowed down on one knee, her head lowered in submission. She hates seeing her like that. Forced to show such respect to someone who’s never done a damn thing to earn it.

“Yes, master. I located Gregor and Parvin Willsaam, and as we speak they are being escorted to Dromund Kaas. They are coming peacefully - I turned them to our side by promising them security and a chance to see their daughter again. I also promised wealth and comfort, and I think it might be best to stick to that. I do not mean to question you, but I believe it might be best if Jaesa Willsaam sees the Empire as the savior in this situation. She will be more inclined to turn to the dark side of the force if she sees the Empire as being in the right.”

Baras spends a silent minute apparently turning the issue over. “Very conniving. The happier they are under Imperial rule, the more it will tear at the Jedi’s heart.”

“Thank you, master. What is my next mission?”

“Not so fast,” he replies, and damn if that doesn’t send a bolt of fear through Vette’s heart. “I wanted to ask you about the mess you’ve created on Alderaan. You should have known better, apprentice. I don’t stand for this sort of thing happening behind my back.”

Gimrizh’s face flickers through panic, confusion, terror, and then back to confusion in the span of less than a second. “What?”

“Hm.” Baras leans backwards, radiating satisfaction like a smug loth cat, except not in any way, shape, or form cute. “So it wasn’t you. As I thought.”

“Master - please, what happened?”

“I was informed that your actions resulted in a number of private security shields going down all over Alderaan. Apparently not all of them have been restored - smaller houses have such dreadful security there. As a result, a noblewoman from House Alde was kidnapped yesterday. Gossip pins you as the perpetrator.”

Gimrizh’s hands curl into fists. “Kendoh. I assure you, master, I had nothing to do with this. No doubt Kendoh sent some of his goons out once he thought the coast was clear. He’s been obsessed with that woman - Lady Renata - from the moment I got here.”

Baras seems almost amused by her. “All that matters to me is that your mission is complete. For whatever reason, the man has taken it upon himself to slander you. I have no further use for Duke Kendoh, so you may handle this how you please. If it were me, he’d pay severely. But do keep in mind that the Alde woman’s kidnapping has already started a planetary incident, and it would be better if this didn’t follow you back to the Empire.”

“Of course, master,” Gimrizh says between gritted teeth.

“Once you’ve finished with that,” he continues, “I have your next assignment. My spies have been unable to locate Jaesa Willsaam’s current location, but I have identified one of Nomen Karr’s safehouses, on Nar Shaddaa. I doubt you will find either the master or the padawan there. Your orders are simply to make a statement.”

“Yes, master.”

“That will be all. I’ll send coordinates once you’ve departed Alderaan.”

The call drops and it’s just the three of them again.

Vette clears her throat. “Hey, if we’re going to Nar Shaddaa - er - there’s something there I’d like to do. Not anything big! Just stuff with me and my old Twi’lek gang! Thief stuff, but from criminals, and not, you know, imps or anything.”

“Very well,” Gimrizh agrees with a sharp nod.

To her shock, Quinn has a similar request. “When we arrive on Nar Shaddaa, my lord, I would like to request some time off. I have been tracking a Republic agent for some time now, and it appears as though he is currently on Hutta. If I take a local shuttle from the moon, it shouldn’t detract from your schedule.”

“Of course. Besides, I’m not worried about an empty safe house.” Gimrizh grabs her cloak from the back of the sofa, shrugging it onto her shoulders. “Shall we go deal with Kendoh?”

~*~

From the moment Gimrizh’s boots hit the floor of House Thul’s palace, she’s ready to deck Kendoh in the face. If he wanted to chase Renata around Alderaan, then he should have done it without involving her. To piggyback off her previous work and then to claim that it’s her fault entirely is simply the final nail in his coffin. It really is lucky that he has no more use to Baras, because otherwise she’d have to worry about pissing off her master. Instead she can do as she pleases.

It takes House Thul’s security all of two minutes to escort her, along with Vette and Quinn, to stand before Lord Jorad Thul.

Jorad Thul strikes her as an entirely different figure from Kendoh. His history against Organa paints him as slow to act, thoughtful, not prone to the rash acts of passion that turn Kendoh from an important spy into a useless piece to be discarded. That caution is visible in Jorad’s demeanor as he sits on the Thul throne, looking down at her and her companions.

“Good afternoon,” Gimrizh says politely.

The crowd assembled around the throne room titters.

“Sith,” Jorad gives her a short nod of acknowledgement, ignoring Vette and Quinn after writing them off as her subordinates. “I’m certain you know why you are here.”

She forces a smile onto her lips, sharp and angry. “Why, yes I do. I can spend all day assuring you that I didn’t kidnap Lady Renata, but if you would allow me to hunt down the real perpetrator, this will go much more quickly. I’m sure you’re a busy man. Give me one hour, within Thul Palace, and I’ll find Lady Renata then send her back to House Alde so that we can avoid what I’m sure is looking like a rather messy planetary incident.”

Jorad’s brow furrows into a deep frown. “Kendoh.”

The crowd shuffles. A few gasps ripple through the room.

“Quite right, Lord Thul.”

Jorad sighs, but eventually acquiesces with a wave of his hand. “Very well, Sith. I do not wish to begin a more bloody chapter of Alderaan’s history, and returning Lady Renata is the fastest way to placate House Alde, and thus House Organa.”

“Thank you for your time,” she replies, turning on her heel and striding out of the throne room, Vette and Quinn right behind her.

Her anger burns through her like a live wire under her skin. It energizes her, fuels her forward. If Kendoh thought he could get away with framing her, he will shortly find himself very mistaken.

They don’t bother knocking when they reach Kendoh’s chambers. Gimrizh simply slams the door open with the force and then they can enter as they please.

“Hello, Kendoh,” she says.

The man in question jumps to his feet, the cigarra he had been smoking tumbling onto the marble tabletop. Fury instantly turns his lips into a snarl, his eyes into thin slits. As per usual, his Sith bodyguards are there, flanking him.

Good.

“What are you -”

She cuts him off. “FimmRess.” She turns to the Sith bodyguard and nods, so slight that it might as well just be an acknowledgement of his presence and nothing more. “As one of my fellow Sith, I expect you to be loyal to the Empire, and to our Order, not Kendoh. Is my assumption correct?”

He slowly returns her nod. “That’s correct. We might be ordered to guard Kendoh, as part of the Empire’s tentative cooperation with House Thul, but we take orders from the Empire above all else.”

“Then, as Darth Baras’s apprentice, I order you to tell me where Kendoh is hiding Lady Renata.”

Kendoh’s jaw drops. “FimmRess! I order you to escort this Sith - “

FimmRess gives her a shallow bow. “He has a number of his own personal guards keeping her contained in a safehouse near the outskirts of the city. My fellows Sith and I are willing to retrieve her if that is what Darth Baras wishes.”

“Thank you. I would appreciate it if you retrieved her and brought her to Thul Palace, so that we can assure the good Lord Jorad Thul that we are resolving this diplomatic incident.”

With a quick gesture to his fellow Sith, FimmRess and the rest of Kendoh’s bodyguards depart.

“I was only doing what you would not!” Kendoh protests, a haughty glare in his eyes. “Lady Renata was a suspect in the case that Lord Baras had me investigating. Had you brought Renata in when I suggested, then I wouldn’t have needed to do so myself.”

“We had already investigated Lady Renata,” Gimrizh reminds him. “And I determined that she knew nothing and subsequently let her go. Furthermore, we had already secured our primary objective on Alderaan when you abducted her. Thus you had no good reason for her kidnapping, as there was no information she could provide us with that we had not already discovered.”

A smug smirk cuts across his mouth, flashing sharp teeth for a moment before vanishing. “If you’ll recall, I had no access to that information. You refused to keep me updated, and thus I had no way of knowing your decision concerning Renata. I think you’ll find this was all perfectly legal! The contract I signed with Baras granted me Imperial authority to act in matters concerning this investigation.”

“Funny you should mention that,” she says. “Captain Quinn, would you mind procuring that contract for me?”

While she hadn’t planned for this, she knows that Quinn won’t falter. And sure enough, he’s handing her his own datapad within moments. “It does seem to be all in order, my lord.”

“Hm.” She skims the large chunks of text. “Well yes, this does seem to do what you claimed. Unfortunately, you appear to have missed the sections about entering my master’s service. Shame, that. It seems as though this is an internal affair.”

Kendoh pauses. “Internal - “

“Why yes. As you said earlier, it’s true that I have no authority over House Thul, or its members. However you are also an agent of Darth Baras. I think you’ll find that I do have some authority in that department.”

“You can’t command me - “

“I can and I will. My master has requested your presence on Dromund Kaas. To… discuss your activities in his service.”

The color drains from his face. He might not have had the first hand show to Baras’s methods that she got, but her master’s reputation certainly precedes him. Kendoh has enough of a vague inkling to realize that his chances of coming back from the Empire’s capital in one piece are slim.

“And if I refuse?”

Gimrizh holds up the contract. “Then I’m sure Lord Jorad Thul will be very interested in your dealings with Baras. Compromising Thul’s security, weakening their platform in the alliance negotiations with this premature deal, and starting a planetary incident for a Sith? That won’t look good for you, will it? Best to get it over with, Kendoh. It’s a bit late to cooperate, but going of your own volition will turn out better for you in the end. My master will be disappointed if we have to force you.”

He head falls, his shoulders shaking in silent anger. “Very well,” he grits out. “I have no choice here, do I?”

“Not much of one, no.”

She hands the datapad back to Quinn and escorts Kendoh out of his chambers. A gentle shove against his back speeds the Duke’s shuffling footsteps up to an actual walk. She walks behind Kendoh to ensure he doesn’t run while Vette and Quinn flank him.

“Shoulda thought twice before pissing the boss off, huh?” Vette asks him with a grin.

Kendoh just glares at her.

FimmRess is waiting for them at the Thul Palace gates, with a squad of Thul guards keeping careful watch over a woman - Renata Alde. The lady is shaking slightly with fear that only spikes as she sees Kendoh’s face again. Then her gaze darts to Gimrizh and she steadies. When Kendoh is forced past her, she spits at his feet.

Gimrizh instructs FimmRess, “Duke Kendoh has an appointment in Kaas City that he simply must keep. Do ensure that he gets there.”

“Of course.” FimmRess claps a hand down on Kendoh’s shoulder, dragging him in the direction of the spaceport as the other Sith surround him.

Then she turns to the guards. “Please inform Lord Jorad Thul that we’ve resolved this little incident and that we are returning Lady Renata to House Alde. Vette, go with them and explain that the Duke is very sorry for his actions.”

“Sure thing, boss lady.”

The House Thul guards leave Renata to report to Jorad, Vette dogging their heels, and then it is just the three of them, Renata looking more and more like she’s going to either punch one of them or bolt.

“We’re going to escort you back to Republic hands,” Gimrizh assures her. “As I said. You won’t be harmed.”

“How can I believe that,” Renata asks, “after everything that has happened to me lately?”

“I let you go the first time, did I not?”

Renata allows them to escort her without fuss after that.

The rest of the Thul militia lets them leave the palace city, only pausing briefly to comm Jorad and check their story. Jorad’s orders are to have them meet with a House Alde escort near the border between Organa and Thul’s territories. Orders relayed, their clearance goes through and then they’re borrowing an Imperial speeder bound for the border.

It takes them three hours, Quinn running the engines at full burn and Gimrizh keeping half her attention focused on the force to ensure they don’t encounter any attackers.

The border is atop one of the massive mountain ranges that weave across Alderaan’s surface. It would appear just like all the rest if not for the massive cliff face, easily a handful of kilometers of sheer rocky drop. A glacier of some sort must have carved it out. That, or it was caused by some terrible superweapon ages ago. Below them is Organa’s territory, and across the mountains behind them is Thul’s, the line made visible both by the geography and the fact that Gimrizh can see tiny speck-like guard posts dotted in the valley below.

A Republic escort is waiting for them at the border.

A Jedi escort.

The Jedi, a Bothan woman, just glares at them before stepping aside in her speeder to allow Renata to gratefully scramble in. “I’m surprised to see you held up your end of the bargain in allowing her safe return, Sith.”

Gimrizh’s hands are tight fists at her sides. “Or you could shut up and be grateful, but I suppose that’s a foreign concept to you Jedi.”

The woman raises an eyebrow, and then shrugs, as though that’s a fair retort.

Without saying anything further, she secures Renata into the vehicle and then their speeder plummets in a controlled descent towards the valley floor.

There’s something… Gimrizh flinches and whirls her head around. There’s no one behind her, there’s no one around besides her and Quinn, and yet… Every hair on the back of her neck stands up straight, her hands clench into tight fists and she longs to reach for her lightsaber.

She’s being followed. Someone’s out here with them.

“My lord?” Quinn asks quietly.

“It’s our stalker! Damn it all!” she grits her teeth together. First Thutrel, then Kendoh, then that damn Jedi escort, and now another krething Jedi? Her vision blurs with fear and annoyance and anger.

She lashes out and puts her fist into a nearby tree.

Vibrations run through her wrist. The tree groans and shudders from the impact. It feels good to hurt something.

“My lord,” Quinn protests quietly as she pulls her hand out of the tree bark. “You cannot fight a Jedi with an injured hand.”

She stares at the thin rivulets of blood that trickle down her wrist. She can’t really feel the pain, not with the dark side so satisfied by her destruction, but she knows it must at least sting. Splinters stick out from all directions in her hand and there’s a gaping hole in the tree trunk that’s faintly smeared with her own blood. It made her feel better in the moment, but now she just feels a million times worse.

“Fuck,” she mutters, “I can’t do anything right.”

Look at her. She’s pathetic. A simple, force-damned name sends her spiraling and now she can’t even take out her frustration without hurting herself.

With silent patience, Quinn gently takes her hand and starts removing the wood chips from her skin, dropping the blood covered splinters into the ground once they’re out. She just stands there without speaking and lets him work, her brain not functioning properly enough to do anything besides stare absently at her ruined hand.

She’s a disaster. Why does Baras even bother with her, when she’s such a weak, useless, disgrace to the Sith name? He’ll figure it out eventually. He’ll realize that she’s just one spoken name away from a complete mental breakdown and then he’ll kill her like all broken apprentices are killed and there’ll be nothing she can do to stop it. She’s a failed tool, trash that deserves to be thrown away. Baras’ll realize this soon and then kill her. Maybe he’ll have Quinn kill her instead. That’d be fitting.

“How far away is the Jedi, my lord?” Quinn inquires, smearing a thin layer of kolto over her hand before wrapping a thick white bandage around the mess.

She shrugs, a stiff, poorly thought out movement. “Not too far. I can sense him. Head back to Thul city, I’ll meet you there when I’m done.”

He gapes at her before his expression narrows into a stern glare. She can’t blame him. After everything that’s happened to her she probably looks like shit, certainly not a good condition in which to be fighting a Jedi alone. “My lord,” he says pointedly, “it would be remiss of me to abandon you before a conflict, particularly at a time like this.”

“I need to handle this alone.”

“You are still injured. I am not going to stand by as you fight yourself into another hospital bed.”

“Please Quinn, just do as I ask.” Her words are flat and bland, boring lies. “I have no intention of letting this Jedi injure me further.”

Why doesn’t he see through her? Why doesn’t he call her out on this deception?

He doesn’t budge. He takes a deep breath and then demands, “Can your hand still hold a lightsaber?”

“That’s an order.”

She can see the minute flickers of surprise on his face, the tightness in his eyes, the way his lips part just the tiniest bit. And then it all vanishes, replaced by flat professionalism.

“Very well, my lord,” he finally agrees.

He finishes wrapping her wrecked hand and then powers up the speeder again, piloting it off down the mountain towards the Imperial outpost in the foothills. In her anger, she does not look at him until he’s gone.

As soon as he vanishes from sight, Gimrizh sinks to the ground and just sits in the snow, trying to breathe. She knows, or at least she has a strong suspicion, of who this Jedi tracking her down is, but her skill at reading force signatures is too poor for her to be certain of anything yet. She can sense someone approaching. Quinn’s signature, a faint pulse that she can barely sense, fades into nothingness. This Jedi just gets closer and easier to sense as time sluggishly churns forward.

She takes a deep breath. Gets to her feet.

The valley stretches before her, the wind tugging at her hair and cloak, as if trying to tip her over the edge. She rolls the tracker between her fingers, back and forth, until there are dents in her fingertips from the hard metal.

It’s harder to keep it together when there’s no one else around. She almost wishes she hadn’t sent Quinn away, if only so that there would be someone else standing around and - not even doing anything really, just existing near her.

She can sense the Jedi get closer and closer and then she can sense the presence behind her.

“Gimrizh,” a familiar voice says, clearly relieved to see her.

“Quorian Dorjis,” she returns his greeting, “Hello.”

He moves to stand in her line of sight and she can see the smile on his face. “It’s so good to see you again. I’m sorry I put a tracker on your friend, but I figured she wouldn’t give you my holo frequency.”

“She’s a good friend,” she says defensively. “What are you doing on Alderaan? I thought the Jedi would keep you in a hospital for a long time after what happened.”

“Oh.” He scratches the back of his closely buzzed hair nervously, “They determined the source of whatever it was that the Sith on Korriban did to me, and I spent a few weeks getting rid of the false information that they had put into my head. But there’s kind of a new situation right now involving Jedi that have been acting strangely, and I’m on Alderaan to see a Jedi who’s working on that case. It’s not related, we know that, but the council just wants to make sure.”

“Understandable,” she says distantly, thinking back to the time when she had broken Quorian out of prison on Korriban, as instructed. And then when she had told him the truth of what the Sith did to his mind, not as instructed. Her second act of disobedience on Korriban. She both does and doesn’t regret it, and the worry about what will happen to her if Baras finds out looms over her head like a storm cloud. “Are you alright? Have you recovered from the overseer’s mental techniques?”

He nods and joins her in staring out into the valley in front of them. “I’ve been doing well. My mind is slowly returning to me, and time has dulled the horrors I experienced in that jail cell on Korriban.”

“Good,” Gimrizh replies, “And how is Tremel?”

“The overseer?” Quorian confirms, “He was well, when last I saw him and he provided an excellent companion in my escape from Korriban. He did tell me something rather interesting though - were you really the one who cut his hand off?”

Stars, it seems like such a long time ago. Back when she thought Baras was just another cog in the Sith machine, before she realized how he has fingers in almost every part of the Order, the Empire, and the galaxy at large. “Well,” she explains, “It was his hand or his life. Tremel was always kind to me and - ” her throat closes, “ - a friend of mine.”

“I enjoyed his company,” he agrees, “Curious, a lifetime spent fighting Sith and then in a matter of days I met two amicable ones.”

“What happened to him?”

“We parted ways on Hutta, I took a shuttle back to Tython, and he said he was going to spend some time in the outer rim. We’re still in touch, as he’s no longer technically an Imperial citizen. He’s a good man. If you want, I could help you arrange a meeting with him?”

She shakes her head, “No, that’s alright.” She pulls a scrap of flimsi out of her pockets and scribbles down a string of numbers. Then she reaches her hand up to Quorian, “That’s my account number. Give that to Tremel when you next see him and tell him to buy himself a decent prosthetic with that money.”

He takes the number with a smile. “You’re a good person, Gimrizh.”

No she’s not. “You’re the only one who thinks that.”

“Yes, because you saved my life, helped me escape from the dungeons on Korriban, and then told me the truth about what the Sith did to me, even when you weren’t supposed to,” he reminds her with pointed words. “You did the right thing, and I owe you everything.”

“Don’t thank me,” she tries to sound like anything other than a flat recording, but her voice just isn’t cooperating.

If he hadn’t mentioned that Miral would suffer, she would have said nothing. Such a slight detail, and yet if it were different, he’d probably hate her. What’s right and wrong had no bearing on her decision.

“Too late,” he says lightly. “I followed you here with the intention of thanking you, so I’m going to have to thank you, or I’ll leave now.”

She shrugs. “Fine, say what you want.”

He smiles at her but it does nothing to remove the weight that’s pressing down on her. “I want to thank you for saving my life, and for saving my mind. And, don’t forget, for saving all those innocent lives that the false information the Sith put in my brain would have condemned. You put people you didn’t even know ahead of yourself, and I know that whatever you might have said back then, you did it at great risk to yourself.”

“It wasn’t like that,” she tries to deny.

“It was,” he states, “I know that if anyone finds out the truth, not only about me, but about Tremel, then you will be in danger. I won’t say anything, you know that, but the Sith Order is a dangerous place to be.”

“I’m fine,” she lies.

He unclips his lightsaber from his belt and holds it out to her. The metal glints in the sunlight. It’s colder, paler, and thinner than her weapon from Naga Sadow’s tomb. More modern, more delicate, and clearly better constructed. She can see dials to change the blade’s length, evidence of recent cleanings, scratches that have been cared for and parts that are newer than the rest that indicate frequent replacements. A better weapon than Naga Sadow’s in every technical respect - but a Jedi’s.

“I want you to have this. As thanks. To keep yourself safe.”

“I already have a weapon,” she says, staring at the plain, simple hilt that speaks of a striking minimalist design.

“And now you have two. One to cut down your enemies, and one to defend your back from your allies,” Quorian warns her.

He’s right - and he shouldn’t be. There’s Baras for her to contend with, and now Thutrel. She’s already done something that could get her badly hurt by other Sith, and she knows that when Baras decides that she’s no longer worth it to him, he’ll use whatever he can against her. And a time when she let a Jedi go free, mission given to her by an overseer or not, is powerful ammunition against her. Her secrets can’t stay hidden forever. Just as sand will eventually be blown away to reveal the edges of what is buried in them.

She takes the hilt slowly and holds it in her hands, running her fingertips over the metal. “I’ll watch my back.”

He smiles a thin, worried smile at her, “Thank you. Promise me you’ll be careful.”

“I promise,” she assures him, “I have no intentions of dying anytime soon.”

“Then good luck,” he says in parting, giving her a respectful bow, “I hope to see you again, but I understand if the unfortunate reality of our situations doesn't allow it.”

“Goodbye, Quorian.”

~*~

After finishing and sending his report to Darth Baras, Malavai finds himself wandering the markets of Thul city before returning to their suite.

They’re scheduled to depart Alderaan this afternoon, and so when he arrives it is to a mostly empty room. Vette has cleared out her areas of mess and is long gone, only Gimrizh remaining as she slowly packs up the few boxes of instant caf and other detritus that she’d left scattered about the quarters.

“Oh - Quinn.” She lowers her pack and blinks in surprise as he steps into the room. “I thought you’d already be back on Horizon .”

He was , and then he’d gone to meet her and then -

“Er - yes, but I thought it would be rude to abandon you to the mess Vette inevitably made, and - “ What else had he been thinking? “I also wanted to inform you that Horizon has been refueled and is ready to depart at your signal. And I - as it is within my duties to provide upgrades for Horizon - with your approval, my lord, of course -“ - Stop talking - “- I purchased an improvement for the ship, one that I thought you might approve of, my lord.”

Well that was a disaster. Before he can say anything worse than that, he withdraws the small bauble from his pocket and places it on the counter in front of her.

She slowly picks it up, turning it over in her hands. It’s a small metallic sphere, with faintly glowing attachment ports laying flat against its surface. “Is this -” She hold it up the the light to get a better look. “A cartosphere?”

“See what’s inside,” he suggests, hastily holding out his datapad for her.

She places it in the holo port - gently, cautiously, as if she’s afraid to so much as scratch the surface. It hums for a moment and then lights up, the information stored inside the sphere rippling outward all around them, illuminating the empty room and filling it with a thousand stars - a hundred thousand stars - the entire galaxy.

“It’s a galaxy map,” she breathes.

“Well,” he replies, “I know the one on Horizon is up to date, but it’s very stark and it’s not a projection. I saw it in the markets and I thought you might - I thought this could be useful? If you want it, of course, my lord.”

It is practical, he never assumed that she’d enjoy something useless. It just also happens to be a good cover if there’s no sentimental value in the cartosphere for her.

She turns around slowly, her golden eyes sparkling in the light as she takes it in, and he realizes that he’d been hoping for this. He had seen it and instantly thought of her. Not of his commanding officer and the use she might get out of it, nor for gaining the gratitude of someone he might consider a friend. Just of her, and the fact that she would like it. He’d wanted to do something that would make her happy, and that thought terrifies him.

It does not escape his notice that he had done this immediately after giving Baras information that she had shared with him in confidence. He shouldn’t feel guilty, and he shouldn’t be trying to make amends, indirect as this might be.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispers, as if out of breath. “I - I can’t thank you enough.”

“There’s no need for that, my lord,” he replies instantly. She owes him nothing, and certainly not her gratitude.

She smiles at him. It’s a small smile, and strained with the events of late, but it’s there and it’s for him. “I think there is. So thank you, Quinn, really. This is wonderful, I - I don’t have the words.”

Ironically, he feels as though she’s stolen any possible reply from him, plucking the words from his lips like the cleverest of thieves.

~*~

“Lord Baras!”

Teryn slowly approaches her lord’s desk. She’s been an aid for Darth Baras for years now. A handler for a number of his agents, she’s seen the Sith in both bad and good moods. Somehow, she knows that this will be worse. She bows to him before straightening up. So many years of service have been long enough for her to grow something of a spine in his presence.

“What is this?” he demands, his masked face staring up at her. She must have interrupted him reading a report or something - there’s a datapad on his desk that’s strategically positioned for her to see not so much as a glint of light on the screen, let alone read it. “I ordered not to be disturbed.”

“Someone - er, one of your agents on Coruscant reported in just now. It’s Ran’il Moor, my lord. He detected two information flags from the Jedi archives.”

Both had been interesting to her, as they rarely found anything of use from the Jedi archives beyond blackmail, and nothing but the highest priority triggers would warrant Moor risking his cover to retrieve the information.

“And?”

“The first was Jedi Knight Thutrel Rineth, my lord, and the second was your apprentice, Gimrizh Korribanil. It appears as though the former pulled the Republic’s file on the later.”

He points at Teryn, anger suddenly coursing through his voice, but more than that - anticipation? “Stay right there.”

“Yes, my lord.”

He snaps back to the datapad on his desk, his one visible eye darting about the screen as he skims over lines of text.

“Impossible,” he whispers at last, in the excited and awed tone of one being told that a loved one, long missing and presumed dead, had just been rediscovered. “I presumed it must be Willsaam, but this - It’s not my apprentice, obviously. Perhaps the Jedi - This truly is the will of the force. To drop her into my lap when she’s just the piece that I need.”

“My lord?”

Baras glances back at Teryn, as if he’d forgotten she’s here. “Send a message to Draahg, informing him to return from his mission. Lower the priority of Jaesa Willsaam to minimal.”

She quickly types both out on her datapad. Jaesa Willsaam - Target Aurek - gets lowered to Target Krill. Draahg’s message is simple, a retreat code sent to his ship that’s not particularly specific, but she assumes Lord Baras will elaborate in person.

“Done, my lord. If I may - does this have to do with the abandoned Yaina Rineth case file? I only saw the file once, but I’m sure I can send Moor to search for all mentions of that Mirialan in the Jedi archives.”

Baras slowly gets to his feet. “You saw it?”

“Er - yes, my lord.”

“Pity.”

Red light bursts before her eyes.

Chapter Text

~*~

“Clear, my lord,” Quinn’s voice says through the tactical comms. “Vette has placed a tap on what little remains of their communication equipment, but it’s unlikely that we will be able to gain anything of worth.”

Pity. Not that they’d particularly expected otherwise, but it would have been a treat to actually find something. Gimrizh nudges the toe of her boot against a discarded Republic flak jacket bearing an SIS patch. Nomen Karr must have been sharing his safehouse space. “They left in a hurry about a week ago, going by how much dust has accumulated. Lord Baras was right - this was a dead end long before we touched down on Nar Shaddaa.”

“Yeah this was a total waste,” Vette adds, “All I’ve found on their servers is porn.”

Gimrizh can’t help but laugh. “Anything good?”

“I’d say no, unless you’re hiding a weird obsession with bor gullets.”

“... And just when I thought I couldn’t dislike the Republic more.”

“Hey, don’t kinkshame.”

There’s a static background over the comms as Quinn clears his throat, half annoyed and half embarrassed. “If you are quite finished?”

“That’s what the bor gullet said.”

Gimrizh chokes.

~*~

Nar Shaddaa remains unchanged since their last mission to the moon. Its pits of gambling, drug abuse, and violent crime are still there, even though reports have mentioned an increase in both the Republic and the Empire’s presence. To make it worse, the mission to crack open Nomen Karr’s safehouse yielded nothing. It had been unlikely from the start that they would find any of his allies still there, but even their thorough pursuit for lingering information gleaned nothing of value.

There are only two positive results of this detour. Firstly, that they are in the center of one of the most neutral areas of the galaxy. This might not have been the safehouse where Jaesa Willsaam was being kept, but the padawan is likely not too far away.

Secondly - it got Malavai closer to Voloren.  

The sounds of the Mezzenti spaceport ring in Malavai’s ears. Call outs for departing ships mix with the bustle of cargo shipments being hauled from one freighter to another. Something acrid smelling drifts through the air - probably a burnt out fuel cell.

Gimrizh stands next to a small cargo freighter. Unaligned pilot, short range transport, and bound for Hutta. Her hands are clasped tightly behind her back, likely to try and keep him from seeing the way she tugs on her sleeves - a familiar nervous habit of hers. “I can still come with you, if you’d like. It’s not too late for you to change your mind.”

“Thank you, my lord,” he replies. “I appreciate the offer.”

“But you won’t take it.”

“No.”

She nods slowly. There’s the smallest of furrows on her lower lip. She’s biting it but trying to prevent him from seeing. “Of course. Be careful, Quinn. I know you want Voloren dead and I’m all for one less Republic agent running around - I just don’t want to have to find a new captain as a consequence.”

“I assure you, I’d never let that - let Voloren - kill me.”

Accepting her offer would be easy, he thinks. As much as he knows that his plan to kill Voloren only requires one person, and that a Sith’s arrival on Hutta would surely spook the agent back into hiding, part of him simply doesn’t want to leave. Leave her. His duty and ambition tugs him one way, and Gimrizh’s friendship to Vette tugs her another, and despite knowing that it will be only a brief separation, he still can’t help but wish it were otherwise.

That... is a problem.

Lord Gimrizh is his commanding officer, and beyond that his duty to Darth Baras demands that he remain objective towards her. This strange, twisting sort of - what is it? Attachment? Concern? Whatever it is, he cannot allow it to continue.

“Then I won’t keep you any longer. I look forward to speaking with you once you return victorious,” she says.

There’s a faint promise of a smile on her lips, and his resolve cracks faster than cheap porcelain.

“I shall holo you once Voloren is dealt with, my lord.”

He can’t waste time worrying about this. He snaps her a salute and then steps onto the freighter.

In the noise of the spaceport, he almost misses Gimrizh’s quiet, “Goodbye, Quinn.”

~*~

"This gang of yours,” Gimrizh asks as they wander out of a spaceport, leaving Cada Bliss’s unconscious body for the authorities to find. “What should I expect from them?"

"Oh, you think I am bad about trying to get you drunk?" Vette grins, "I learned from the best. These guys will have you hammered out of your mind and sobbing your life's story before you even know what hits you."

"I'll make sure to take your warning to heart."

Vette steps out onto the veranda that wraps around the edge of the spaceport and signals for a taxi.

"Where exactly are we meeting this gang?" Gimrizh asks as a pilot droid pulls a speeder up in front of them and Vette inputs a destination on the terminal.

"You'll have to see when we get there," Vette says mysteriously, waggling her eyebrows at her friend. She just laughs when Gimrizh tries to glare the answer out of her and keeps laughing as they step into the cab. The whole ‘I am Sith, fear me’ thing has kind of worn off due to prolonged exposure.

"The Promenade?" Gimrizh asks suspiciously as they pull up alongside the massive hovering spacescraper complex.

"You got it!" Vette confirms.

The taxi pulls up to a busy drop off point and lets them disembark after Vette tosses a credit chip at the pilot droid. The Promenade is bustling with people at this time of day. Massive groups of all sorts are million about, shopping or boozing or being entertained on one of the many pleasure barges moored alongside the docks. Even though she knows her gang are probably already at the meeting point, she can't help but let her eyes dart around in hopes of catching glimpse of a familiar pair of lekku.

There's a skip in her step and her pulse bounces in her throat. Ignoring the 'sorry, closed' sign, she struts into the familiar cantina like a champion returning from the stage of a coliseum.

The place is shut to the public today and had been turned into a private venue for them. It's a smaller cantina as it is, so the size is perfect for the six of them. Darun is wiping down glasses and three Twi'leks are lounging on stools at the counter. She spots the bright red of Taunt's skin, hear Plasmajack's deep laugh, smell the brain-destroying sharpness of Flash's ship engine distilled liquor.

When Vette steps through the entrance it is with the confidence and nervousness of a champion nunaball team entering their home arena. “I’m back!”

"Vette!" Taunt leaps to her feet and envelops her in a heart warming, bone crushing, hug. She pulls back to beam at Vette. "Look who the akk dog dragged in!"

Flash smiles that twitchy smile of his. "Good to see your dumb face."

With a laugh, Vette slides over to the bar to punch him in the shoulder. "Good to see your ugly one."

Plasmajack laughs and gives Vette an enthusiastic fist bump. "Missed you a bunch," he adds, still forgoing Basic as part of his pride in his Ryloth heritage. She's missed the sounds of her own language, spoken as something to be proud of, rather than something rich men consider 'exotic'. She’s missed that pride. She can’t provide it all on her own.

"How could I stay away?" she joins in, smiling at him, before glancing over to the rest of them, "I take it you all got my message from our short friend?"

Darun looks less pleased than he had been a second ago. "Seriously? I throw you all a private bash and you're still on the short thing? What's a Togruta got to do around these parts to get some respect?"

"Lose one of your montrals," Taunt teases, "Then you could pass as a Twi'lek!"

The bartender snorts, "You guys are a barrel of crazy nexus." He grabs a bunch of glasses and fills them up with a particularly nice microbrew. Stars, she could marry that guy for his booze. She won’t but if she did, no one could blame her. "Why do I put up with you guys anyways?"

"You secretly love us?" Vette suggests. “That, or you’re biding your time until you sell us out to the Hutts.”

Flash jerks his head towards Gimrizh, who's still hovering by the door with a surprisingly awkward look, "Who's the girl?"

Vette waves Gimrizh over.

Gimrizh is a puzzle piece that’s sticking out on one end and is a little bent. So many corners where she could almost fit in. Connections she could almost make. It might be selfish, but Vette wants to take those corners, slotting them into her group, forcing Gimrizh to be part of them for just a short while.

"Pleasure to meet old friends of Vette."

"Oh fuck," Darun gapes and glances between Vette and Gimrizh. "You're the Sith?"

Gimrizh nods stiffly. "Is this a regrettable revelation?"

Taunt shrugs and moves on to her next mug of beer. "Nah. We've heard good things. Only Vette would find a sweetheart Sith to tag along with."

"I'm hardly anyone's sweetheart," Gimrizh says dryly.

Taunt slaps Gimrizh on the back, who flinches. “You can be my Sith sweetheart if you want. Vette has good taste."

“I’m no one’s sweetheart,” Gimrizh replies vehemently at the same time as Vette says; "That's what I tell people."

"So," Flash says, wrapping his hands around his mug and eyeing the case Vette has on the table, "Shall we talk business?"

"The Star of Kala'unn is in the case. Authentic, and undamaged," she tells them. She lovingly runs a hand over the top of the case before cracking open the lock and letting everyone have a look. An appreciative hush falls over their group. The stunning jewel rests in a cradle of velvet. It’s a beautiful opalescent gem that’s been engraved over thousands of years as each owner or jeweler left behind a maker’s mark on the surface. The names and marks of people long dead shine on it, a visual representation of Ryloth history.

This is big,” Plasmajack whistles, awed by the majesty of what they’ve recovered. “Amazing.”

Flash nods along. “Got that right.” he nudges Taunt who nudges Vette. “All you, Vette.”

Even though she tries to maintain her cool, Vette can feel a flush of heat rise into her cheeks. “I have a big enough ego as it is, guys, don’t make it worse.”
Amazing,” Plasmajack says again, “Really amazing work, Vette."

She chokes on the sincere admiration in his voice.

“Come on.” Darun refills their glasses. “This is supposed to be a party isn’t it? Stop being so somber and lighten up before I kick you out for infecting my bar with depression.”

Taunt grins. “And Vette’s usually such a beacon of joy, isn’t she?”

"I'm mostly not horrible," Vette says with a laugh, giving a teasing tug on one of Taunt's lekku. “Oh Darun - can you make a drink for my Sith friend over here? I’m curious as to what she’ll like. She’ll drink just about anything, but you have the magic touch.”

The slouch jolts out of Gimrizh’s posture. “I’m fine with anything, there’s no need - “

“Nonsense!” Darun interjects. He gives her a good look over and then starts pulling bottles. In all the time Vette’s known him, she’s never seen him fail to pin the perfect drink to someone. The man has a talent. He’s got a drink poured faster than she can blink. “You seem like you’ve got a discerning palate - “ Seriously? Gimrizh drinks sludge caf and eats nothing but protein packs. “ - so I think something simple and classy for you. To warm you up. Have that and then I’ll work you up to something fancier for your second drink.”

Gimrizh prods the glass with her finger. “What is it?”

“Gin and tonic. A classic.”

She takes a sip. Vette is leaning across the bar with bated breath.

“It’s… not bad,” Gimrizh admits. She has another sip. “I like it.”

Vette cheers. “Success!”

After that, a pitcher of Hutta limeade is dropped onto the counter, Flash pulls out a set of sabacc cards, and he manages to draw everyone but Gimrizh into a wild mess of gambling. Darun’s got a lazy smile on his face as he watches the party get in full swing. Vette likes to think that he’s secretly very fond of them. Or very proud. Either way, there’s a reason he lets her drag a Sith into his bar and then throw a party.

~*~

Malavai has been set up in the city of Bilbousa for four days now. This entire planet is abhorrent. Thick clouds of smog from the Hutt’s spice refineries and strip-mining operations cloak the planet in dust and grey air. A pervasive smell hovers through the city like a fog. What a mess. Even though Bilbousa is a haven for Hutts and criminals of all sorts, it has no sort of refined infrastructure or central government. The only real authority on this planet are the Hutts, and it’s abundantly clear that they haven’t a care for the people who live here or even the place itself. This is technically a city, but it’s still a hot humid swamp filled with criminals and lowlifes.

The Empire’s reach onto this planet is thin and tenuous. A number of trade agreements with the Hutt Cartel are all that technically allow the Empire to step off Hutta’s moons and onto the main planet, all of which are shaky and unstable. Even so, there is a steady enough stream of Imperials frequenting Hutta to allow Malavai to enter unnoticed.

Voloren’s supposedly been funding a guerilla anti-Imperial resistance group in the city, but the good thing about groups like that is they get noticed. And in a place like Bilbousa, it’s easy for Malavai to exchange credits for the information he needs.

The streets of the city are constantly embroiled in a Hutt turf war, another blessing, as it’s easy for him to remain unobtrusive when two gangsters are busy beating each other up and drawing a crowd. It’s no wonder that the Hutt Cartel has always remained a secondary player in the greater galactic conflicts when compared to the Empire and the Republic.

So much of their efforts are focused towards backstabbing their own people and petty squabbles between individual Hutts. Their Cartel is made up of thugs and criminals who turn on each other without a second thought. Case in point, the informant who flagged Voloren on the holonet in exchange for a handful of unmarked credits.

There’s a guard smoking a death stick sitting on a crate outside of the building where Voloren is supposedly hiding out.

At least it makes his job easy. The guard is obviously well acquainted with the strong spice and the stick is almost burned out. His posture is slumped, blaster held in loose hands, eyes inattentive.

Unfortunately the lack in front door security is made up for by the system of holo cameras and motion sensors that have been rigged up. This cluster of warehouses in Jiguna might be run down, but that has not stopped Voloren from surrounding his hideout with dozens of traps. Fortunately for Malavai, he’s a better slicer than Voloren. Years of studying the Republic agent’s movements have revealed some very obvious holes.

It was the work of a few careful days of observation, but yesterday Malavai placed a tap on one of their off-site servers and sliced a backdoor into their systems.

He taps a series of commands into his datapad and that’s it. The holo footage is looped, the sensors are on their lowest security setting, and he’s ensured that the guard currently smoking his lungs out ten paces away is holding a security badge.

Malavai walks up to him and puts a vibroblade through his throat without any struggle. Quiet, no noise, none of the notice a blaster gives.

The vibroblade is wiped clean and disappears into its sheath, nestled against his forearm, in time for him to catch the body and lower the corpse onto the concrete so as not to alert Voloren. His banishment to Balmorra gave that Republic scum ten years to run and hide. He refuses to give another second of warning.

He grabs the dead guard’s security badge and slides it through the rudimentary lock on the door.

As soon as the door opens, the reek of spice smoke only grows. Stars, he hates Hutt Space. Nar Shaddaa is worse only by a small margin. He steps into the foyer, pistol whips the guard that tries to stop him, and then continues inside the safe house.

This place is relatively unguarded, and he only has to take out one more of Voloren’s pathetic gangsters before entering the command room.

A man is hunched over a communications array, his back to Malavai and his ear to the comm set. He must hear Malavai come in but he just waves him in, apparently expecting someone else. “Just leave the scanner on the table, yeah? I’ll send the blaster boys over to Fa’athra’s turf with you in a minute.”

Malavai strides up to the table and puts his blaster to the side of the man’s head. “Hello Voloren.”

He can see the whites of Voloren’s eyes when the man slowly turns around. There’s a moment of confusion followed quickly by recognition. Good. He’d hate to have to reintroduce himself.

“Well well,” Voloren comments after a moment, “Lieutenant Malavai Quinn. Last I heard you were off getting court-martialed. I thought you were off my back for good after Druckenwell. What’s a worm like you doing crawling out of the woodwork?”

No, he still hates the man just as much as ever. Good to know. He keeps his face still as he corrects, “Captain.”

“What?” Voloren frowns.

“It’s captain,” he clarifies sharply, “Not lieutenant.”

“Ah,” Voloren says slowly. “That explains some things. I’d congratulate you on the promotion, but I still hate your guts.”

“The feeling is mutual, I assure you.” Malavai notices Voloren’s hand slowly reaching across the table towards a blaster. That’s not going to happen.

Before Voloren can so much as lay a finger on the weapon, Malavai has his vibroblade drawn and drives it through his hand until  the entire blade is buried in flesh and wood.

Voloren gasps in pain, “You son of a-” he grabs the handle and begins to yank.

“I’d advise against that,” Malavai says, pressing the barrel of his blaster into Voloren’s forehead. “And don’t try and pick up the blaster again, or else you’ll lose the use of both hands.”

A bead of sweat trickles down Voloren’s face, “So,” he gulps, trying to maintain what little dignity he has left. “What happens now? You finally tracked me down, congratulations, here I am. Gonna bring me in for questioning? Try to torture information out of me? You know that’ll never work, the SIS trains in resisting interrogation. This the part where I make another daring escape and you waste ten years hunting me down?”

“No,” Malavai says smugly, “This is the part where I kill you.”

Voloren laughs, even as he winces from the pain. “Not fucking likely.”

A split second of Voloren’s eyes twitching to stare at the blaster is the only warning Malavai has before he realizes that he has gotten far too close to his target.

Ignoring his pinned hand, Voloren jerks his head to the side and leans forward, using his free hand to grab the barrel of Malavai’s blaster and yank . He barely holds onto his weapon as he staggers forward. Blood splatters the floor as Voloren ignores the knife to pull his hand, bloodied and torn, from the table.

Malavai’s going to get stabbed if he doesn’t move.

So he does. He drops his blaster, making his enemy lurches forward. It’s simple to kick one of Voloren’s already unstable legs out from under him. He wraps his hand around Voloren’s wrist - twists - and slams Voloren’s upper body against the table.

A bit of pressure is all that’s needed to break Voloren’s remaining hand and then he retrieves his blaster for Voloren’s slack grip.

“You Imperials,” Voloren spits out. “No fun at all.”

Malavai's fingers tighten around the handle of his blaster. He's always hated Voloren's laidback attitude, the lack of concern, and how despite that flaw he still manages to be a very successful agent of the Republic. At least when he's gone, the SIS will be down one skilled agent.

His eyes narrow. “I’m enjoying myself immensely.”

There's the snap of noise, the flash of light, and then Voloren falls over to slump lifeless in his chair, a smoking and charred hole in the side of his head.

Malavai takes a deep breath and holsters his blaster.The virbroblade leaves a bright red smear across Voloren's shirt, the scent of blood and discharged tabanna gas drowning out the spice smoke as he checks the room for anything useful he can take back to the Empire. There’s nothing much of interest here that he can take back to the Empire. Whatever little side project Voloren had been working on here will die with him; there’s nothing Malavai need do to end it.

As he leaves the room, he glances back at Voloren’s body. Satisfaction curls in him like pleased a loth cat. He spent so long chasing that SIS bastard down, knowing that he was out there and actively working to subvert the Empire, that now that he’s dead, it’s actually a relief. Like finishing a chapter of a holonovel.

He retraces his steps through the safehouse so that he can take advantage of the same security blindspot that he created to enter. A new guard rotation hasn’t arrived yet, and from his careful observations, they won’t for another few hours.

He’ll be off Hutta by then.

The increased Imperial presence is a blessing in more ways than one. Imperial shuttles now travel between the spaceports on Hutta and Nar Shaddaa every hour, handling the regular flow of people traveling between the planet and its busiest moon. Now that Voloren has been dealt with, Malavai is no longer trying to keep under the radar and the military shuttles are a convenient option. It also means that he’s relatively assured of his own safety once he passes through the Imperial checkpoints in the center of Bilbousa.

Standing in the spaceport, Malavai pulls out his datapad and submits an anonymous report to the Military Sphere that flags Voloren as dead and his operations disbanded.

As much as the credit would be nice, getting Voloren off the playing field is it’s own reward.

~*~

Jaesa chews on her thumbnail.

Outside the transparisteel window shines the Y’toub system, although she cannot see half the planets from this angle. She’s been floating around in Hutt space for weeks now, with her master only dropping in briefly to either give her updates or inform the crew that she’s to be sprinted off into a different corner of the galaxy. Despite Master Karr’s assurances, there is no indication that this state of existence will cease anytime soon.

And now she has just been informed that her parents are in Imperial custody.

She’d warned Master Karr!

She had warned him that her parents would be in danger, that if this Sith had decided Master Yonlach - a Jedi master - was an acceptable target then they would have no qualms going after her parents. Now she’s lost them, possibly forever. She knows they’re not dead, she can still sense them through the force, and they aren’t in pain, but beyond that? She doesn’t know. Upon joining the Jedi Order, she’d understood that she might have difficulty seeing her parents. It had been something she’d accepted. Now that they’re in real visceral danger, she finds she cannot accept never seeing them again.

No matter how long it has been since she last saw them, they are her parents and she loves them. They love her. She can’t abandon them to the Empire - she won’t.

She stops chewing at her nails and draws a finger over the file currently staring up at her from her datapad. Master Karr’s latest efforts to gather information on the Sith hunting her down.

There’s a few beyond Darth Baras. One is an unknown who’s been busting up Karr’s various safehouses across the galaxy, and there are tracks of another few gathering information on her. The one she’s interested in however, is fortunately the one they have the most intel on.

Gimrizh Korribanil. Sith apprentice. Entered Darth Baras’s service sometime in the past year. Everything else is spotty, lists of places she’s been sighted, and what they can tell about her movements by piecing this together.

And there’s a holo frequency. One of Karr’s agents in the Empire got a holo frequency for Korribanil’s ship and it’s right at Jaesa’s fingertips.

The Sith had seemed reasonable.

They could end this.

But she’s never disobeyed Master Karr before. When she’d become his padawan, she’d promised to trust in his teachings, and that includes obeying his direct orders. She’s also never had a good enough reason to disobey before.

Master Karr is wrong.

Before Jaesa can second guess herself she strides over to the communications terminal and calls the Sith.

She takes a deep breath.

The call connects.

Only a few moments of tense short breaths pass before the holo terminal lights up and projects the image of a Sith. It’s the same woman that Jaesa saw a flash of through Master Yonlach’s eyes - a Zabrak. Although the holo projects on a scale of one to one, the fact that it is elevated off the floor makes the Zabrak loom over Jaesa.

“Hello,” Jaesa says. She steels herself. “Are you Korribanil?”

“There are a lot of Korribanils,” the Sith drawls, crossing her arms across her chest. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be a tad more specific.”

“Gimrizh Korribanil.”

Ah. Then yes, I am that Korribanil.”

It’s impossible to say if she’s embarrassed or holding in a laugh. The Sith is doing that to try and catch her off guard, but there’s an easy charisma to her. If it weren’t directed at Jaesa, she’d find it entertaining. “My name is Jaesa Willsaam, padawan to Master Nomen Karr. I heard you were looking for me?”

Like a nexu faced with its prey, Korribanil’s entire body slowly stills until she could pass as a stern faced statue. She turns to someone outside of the holo’s viewport and mutters a command that just comes across as a static, indecipherable mumble to Jaesa.

“I’m not scrambling my signal,” Jaesa adds, interpreting the Sith’s command. “You’ll be able to track my ship easily.”

Korribanil pauses and frowns down at her. “I take it you are playing a different game than your master?”

“Master Karr thinks that I must run and hide, but we know those are not my only options. You aren’t some nameless malice, you are sentient like I am, and you seemed reasonable enough when you spoke to me through Master Yonlach.”

“Diplomatic, aren’t you? Alright, I’ll take your bait. We’ll be approaching your ship in an hour. Why don’t we speak in person?”

That has been her hope this entire time. “Fine by me. You were right, you know. Our masters think that they can fight their grudges through us - this is personal, no matter how Master Karr and I imagine your Lord Baras pretend otherwise.”

“Oh, my master doesn’t pretend to be indifferent about all this, although I can easily see a Jedi doing so. Sith embrace their emotions.” Korribanil’s eyes narrow and Jaesa has the distinct impression that the Sith is sharper than she lets on. “I imagine it’s rather frustrating, isn’t it? Your master nurses his old hatred of Baras and then turns around to tell you to abandon your emotions, abandon your old master, abandon your parents.”

Jaesa tries to swallow past the lump in her throat. “You were the one who hunted down Master Yonlach and my parents.”

“Yes, I was.”

No defense against that? Jaesa appreciates directness, if nothing else. “That ends. I won’t allow those I care about to be hunted down any longer. When you arrive, we can speak rationally, face to face, and then we can end this.”

Korribanil nods. “See you in an hour, Padawan Willsaam.”

Jaesa’s body sags as the call drops.

Now she has to end this herself. She can do this. If Master Karr won’t do what needs to be done, then she will. She wants to sit down with her enemy without having Master Karr at her shoulder, speaking for her. What she’s about to do terrifies her and at the same time she’s trembling with anticipation.

And then Master Karr stops hiding his force presence from her.

Well. Shit.

She turns around to see him standing in the doorway. If she didn’t know better, she’d say he looked angry, There’s the faintest whisper of temptation - that she could check, that she could know with certainty if beneath his usual calm a furious storm raged. She does not look. He’s her master - and it would be rude.

“You are coming with me right away,” he orders. “We’re getting you off this ship before the Sith arrives, and once you are safe, we will have words regarding your disobedience.”

“But master - “

Now.”

~*~

Gimrizh had called Darth Baras as soon as she’d gotten off the holo with Jaesa Willsaam. At first she’d wanted to keep this to herself. Jaesa has been correct in saying that their masters are using them to fight out their own arguments, and for a moment Gimrizh had thought to go alone, as suggested. As much as she’d wanted to, it’s impossible. She isn’t hunting down Jaesa because she wants to, she’s doing it because her master has ordered it. Thus, it is his decision, not her’s.

And as a result, Draahg will be docking alongside them when they reach Jaesa’s ship.

“We’re approaching the Jedi’s coordinates now, my lord. Our scanners are picking up only one ship nearby,” Quinn says as Horizon slows from its breakneck speeds and the stars gain clarity. “I can see a small Imperial fighter docked alongside it as well.”

A ship pulls into sight through the viewport. It’s a Republic cruiser, likely a personnel carrier and not heavily armed. If it is a trap, they can’t be planning on shooting Horizon out of the sky. The ship certainly doesn’t have enough firepower for that.

Gimrizh rests her hands lightly on her lightsaber hilts. There’s the heavy metal blade from the tomb on Korriban and the lighter blade from Quorian Dorjis. The latter has yet to be used in combat, and she’s actually somewhat looking forward to trying out both sabers at once. She learned the basics of dual wielding in the Institute, but she’s never studied it much since then. A few days of training against droids is nothing like real combat. Hopefully it won’t come to a fight.

“Get us on board,” she tells Quinn, standing up from the terminal, “I’ll go and drag Vette out.”

He sighs and tries to push the frown off his face. “Is Vette really necessary, my lord?”

She gives him a look, "I know you two don't like each other, but she's good with a blaster and we could be walking into a trap. Overconfidence gets people killed."

"As you say, my lord," he reluctantly agrees.

She leaves the bridge as Horizon approaches the enemy ship and makes her way towards Vette's quarters. The door is still shut, and so she knocks politely a couple of times.

On the second knock, Vette yanks the door open. She’s been sulking in her room since the padawan’s call, and there’s still a sour frown on her face. "Yeah?" she asks, leaning against the hatch and picking at her nails.

"We're about to dock," Gimrizh informs her.

Vette gives a long and drawn out sigh. "Yeah, okay. Look," she hesitates and then actually stares at Gimrizh. "This is not about you okay? You're pretty alright for a Sith, but I've met other Sith too and they aren't nice."

Gimrizh tightens up, throwing a wall up between herself and Vette on instinct, before she can remember that this is Vette and not Baras. "Yes, you've informed me that I am, I believe, 'the nicest'," she says sarcastically, "But by all means, keep complimenting me, I enjoy an over-inflated ego."

"I said this isn't about you," Vette replies, deflecting the attempt to change the conversation, "You're a half-decent person on occasion. But if you try and destroy that girl - she won't be. She'll become another one of those crazy nut job Sith, and, to be honest, the galaxy has enough of those as it is. She seems like a good person. Why do we have to ruin that?"

The words ‘Jedi’ and ‘good person’ clash in Gimrizh’s mind. There is no overlap between the two, not even a small sliver of space. Jedi deserve nothing. These two concepts are as dissimilar as day and night. And ruining Jaesa? She would never do that. Jaesa is a very useful tool, and to destroy that would be a waste Baras would take her head for. When Jaesa joins the Sith Order, she will become Baras’s most prized apprentice, a place of honor and comfort and security. Gimrizh can only dream of being that lucky.

Only Vette would never understand that.

"You know what Baras will do to me if I don't fulfill my orders. If there's some way that I can convert Jaesa Willsaam to the Sith without turning her to the dark side, then fine. I'm all ears. But I don't have any ideas and neither do you."

"You could at least think about it," Vette stresses.

"I've thought about it," Gimrizh snaps, "I'm not dying for a wishful ideal. Now, get your blasters ready and prepare to board this damn ship. You’ll get to talk to Willsaam yourself if it matters so much to you."

Vette reaches back it to her quarters to grab her blasters and holster them, "For a half-decent person, you can be a real sleemo sometimes," she tosses over her shoulder as she works.

"That'd be the 'half' part of 'half-decent'," Gimrizh retorts.

There's a shudder through the walls of the ship as they slide into the airlock. Showtime.

She glances back at Vette to make sure the Twi'lek is following as she heads to the main hatch. Quinn, coming from the direction of the bridge, joins them there.

Gimrizh pushes the unlocking button and stands back as the large doors slide open with the hiss of air depressurizing.

“This ends now, I suppose. I’m grateful for your help.”

“Technically, my lord,” Quinn replies. Is that a smile? It vanishes before Gimrizh can figure out if it is. “The both of us work for you. You are under no obligation to thank us. But I… appreciate it. Thank you, my lord.”

“Eh,” Vette says with a shrug, “What are friends for, anyways?”

They step onto the decks of the unfamiliar ship.

The airlock is large enough to accommodate a massive boarding party, and there's a neatly decorated hall up ahead. This ship isn't a warship, it's a cruiser, so it would be designed to match a civilians sensibilities. That means the center of the ship would be some sort of main hall for large congregations of people, and the the bridge or communication rooms would be placed to the far edges of the ship, the opposite of how most warships or freighters are designed, and the opposite of Horizon.

Draahg is waiting for them when they exit the airlock.

“Hello, Korribanil,” he says with a smile. “It’s good to be working with you again.”

She shakes his hand when he offers it. “I could say the same. This is my crew - Captain Malavai Quinn and Vette.”

Draahg gives Quinn a nod. “Pleasure to work with you.” He doesn’t acknowledge Vette at all before turning back to Gimrizh. “Have your crew secure the ship while we deal with Willsaam. I want to make sure that the Republic isn’t going to sabotage us the moment we’ve sprung this trap.”

“You’re certain it is a trap?”

“I’m surprised you aren’t.”

“When I spoke to her over holo she seemed remarkably sincere. I suspect a trap - she is a Jedi after all - but I wouldn’t say I’m certain.”

The slight falter of Draahg’s smile makes her feel as though she’s failed some sort of test. “I suppose we’re about to find out - one way or another. Either way this turns out, Darth Baras has a squad of troops under his control standing by. They’ll be able to contain the padawan if we secure her.”

Always the pragmatist. What situation isn’t her master prepared for? “Let’s go then.” She nods to her two companions. “Secure the ship, please.”

“Yes, my lord,” Quinn replies, snapping off a sharp salute.

Draahg strides off down the hall, leaving Gimrizh to follow in his footsteps.

She was right, the rest of the ship is huge and spacious, with a large number of light fixtures and plush carpeting. Definitely designed for diplomats. Luxury, not practicality.

Her hands twitch reflexively, and she has to stop herself before she draws her lightsaber.

At the end of the large hall are two figures. They’re wearing the loose beige of Jedi robes, lightsabers at their belts. Just like the dark side radiates from her master when he wants to intimidate her, these Jedi seem steeped in the light side of the force. It isn’t the richness or the depth of the dark side, it’s an unnatural bleach that threatens to spread through the force like a disease leaching away life.

So much for Jaesa Willsaam's promises and pretty words.

“What a surprise,” Draahg says flatly.

It’s a blessing that he hasn’t drawn his lightsaber yet.

She doesn't want this fight getting messy. Hells, if she could avoid a fight altogether, she would, but Jedi can’t be trusted unless they’ve already been beaten down. If they tried to turn around and walk out the Jedi would simply stab them in the back. She had been a fool to trust Jaesa. It was a rookie mistake and yet - for a moment she had really thought that the padawan would keep her word.

The younger one looks almost gleeful when she steps up to face them. Arrogance? That’s not unexpected from a Jedi, although she isn’t used to them showing it so openly. The Jedi are hypocrites even when it comes to their creed about emotions it seems. "Well, well. We're going to have to thank Nomen Karr after all. The Sith showed."

Gimrizh gives them a terse and sarcastic bow. "Pleasure to meet you.”

"Stand down. You two have no reason to fight," the older and taller one orders. He looks to be the wiser of the two, and certainly less enthusiastic than his younger companion. Pity. The more reckless idiots in a room, the easier it can be to divide and conquer. "The padawan you seek is not here. Master Karr discovered her plans and talked her out of it."

The younger one smirks, "It's not your day. You were expecting one lowly little padawan to crush and instead you get us."

"I knew it wouldn't be that easy," Gimrizh says with a shrug. The fact that she was walking into a trap was pretty obvious.

"Just like a Sith," the younger comments with a sneer, "Always looking for a shortcut."

Draahg returns the glare with a quick anger that she hasn’t seen from him before. “Not even going to exchange pleasantries before trading insults? Typical Jedi.”

"I'm Ulldin," says the elder. He gestures to his fellow Jedi, "This is Zylixx. We are fully trained Jedi knights and more than your match. You should submit."

"Of course," Zylixx says as he looks her up and down, "We've yet to encounter a Sith with the sense to surrender. You all seem hell bent on having us destroy you. We're not complaining, it certainly makes our job easier, but the lot of you don't seem to be particularly clever."

Draahg raises an eyebrow scathingly at him. "Admit it," he drawls, "You'd be disappointed if we gave up."

Ulldin shakes his head slowly. "Not at all. We don't go around picking fights."

"I wouldn't trust it if the Sith do surrender," Zylixx adds, "I prefer the sureness of death.”

“Oh good,” Draahg replies, unclipping his lightsaber from his belt. “So do I.”

So much for trying to avoid a fight. Gimrizh’s hands fall to her two lightsabers. Will the blue crystal of a Jedi bend to her will the same way as the red of Naga Sadow’s does? She feels like pieces of a brand new circuit, pushed into a single shape but yet to see if she can handle a current. As she lets the dark side dig its protective claws into her, she thinks that there’s no one better to test herself against than a couple of aggravating Jedi.

And at least she has another Sith by her side.

While she might not know how Draahg fights, she can guess. Heavy armor under his robes - he’s anticipating taking hits. Taller than her - probably stronger. There’s enough of an elegance to him that makes her think he’s not clunky, that he wears his armor like a second skin more than anything else.

Above all else, he is Baras’s most senior apprentice and thus the most experienced - and likely the most skilled as well.

“Handle the loud mouth,” Draahg orders, a harsh whisper of a command. “I’ll take the other.”

She draws her blades. Quorian’s in her left hand, Naga Sadow’s in her right. “Giving me the easy target?”

“I’d prefer to wrap this up quickly.”

“So would I!” Zylixx ignites his blade, a green light bathing his features in a sickly hue. She hopes he’s just overconfident.

Out of the corner of her eye she can see Draahg rush forward. Ulldin hesitates before drawing his own weapon, having no choice but to fight back as Draahg brings his saber down to slash and hack without remorse.

She catches a glimpse of Ulldin’s loose Shii-Cho forms matched by Draahg’s Juyo and then puts their fight on the backburner. It’s close range, contained. Neither are making large changes in their measure and so she can be reasonably assured that they won’t come close to her engagement.

Convenient, given that Zylixx is about to cut her down.

It’s a surprise how easy his form is to read. She pivots. His blade stabs through empty space and she slides into a low stance, her red blade behind her back and her blue in front of her. It takes him a full second to recover - an eternity to her eyes.

She kicks off like a bolt out of a blaster.

As she moves, she turns, her lightsabers clashing against Zylixx’s hasty guard once - twice - she lands, the toe of her boot barely touching the ground before she’s pivoting again, slashing at his legs. The hits don’t land, but they force him to jump backwards, skidding away from her and putting him on the defensive.

A snarl contorts his face. “Sith bitch.”

“Proudly.”

He takes another series of barely blocked attacks from her before using his superior strength to lock her red blade against his lightsaber and throw her off him.

And then they re-engage with a flurry of blows.

All the hesitance she’d felt in training with her second weapon, all the unsteadiness that she had been expecting - it’s vanished without a trance. There is nothing cumbersome about dual wielding now, not a hint of awkwardness. She dances through combat with an ease she’s never felt before. There’s a balance . An ebb and flow, like the force, that she taps into without needing to think about it.

She’s faster. Sharper. Better.

She leans backwards as Zylixx’s blade slices through the air above her head and then she twists. Her blue saber cuts through his sword hand - both his weapon and his hand clatter to the ground.

He collapses and clutches his burnt stump of a wrist, trying to keep a cry of pain from escaping.

Gimrizh kicks his saber to the side and steps forward, crossing her blades across his neck. The blue and red clash as they meet, almost a purple where the beams cross.

When she darts her gaze across the hall, she sees Draahg bring Ulldin to his knees.

Zylixx’s eyes widen. “Ulldin! No!”

A swift swing of Draahg’s lightsaber cleaves Ulldin’s torso into two halves.

“They don’t know anything,” Draahg says. He deactivates his blade and strides over to her, sparing only a cursory glance for Zylixx. “Lord Baras will want to hear about this. Take out your trash and let’s go.”

The sentence slaps her across the face. No matter how friendly he might be, he still is Baras’s apprentice. She would do well to keep that in mind.

“Don’t you call me -”

She silences Zylixx with such a simple movement of her blades. After his head hits the ground, she uses the force to pull his discarded lightsaber into her hand and then clips it to her belt. It isn’t as though he needs it anymore. At least she doesn’t collect the body parts of her defeated enemies like Baras does.

“I’ll contact our master. His squad near Nar Shaddaa will be here soon to contain the ship and see what they can scavenge - no offense, but I’d prefer our master’s professionals handle the matter rather than your crew.”

She grits her teeth. “Of course.”

“Return to the Nar Shaddaa Imperial space station. Either Karr will remain in the neutral zone of Hutt space, or he’ll pull his padawan out of this system and we’ll have to start this hunt anew. Either way, you might as well remain in the area while I handle our backup.” Draahg holds out his hand. “It’s been a pleasure working with you again. I don’t work well with some of Baras’s other apprentices, and it’s a treat to find someone I get along with.”

Shoving her hesitation down, she shakes his hand. “Thank you. I worked very briefly with one of our master’s newer apprentices on Dromund Kaas - he tried to kill me. I’d say that you’re infinitely preferable.”

He laughs. “Such a low bar.”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” she replies instantly. Something in his expression rings false, only she can’t tell exactly what. Just a slight flicker in his usual friendliness.

That flicker vanishes in his next smile. He claps her on the shoulder as he turns to head back towards the airlocks on the other end of the ship. “No worries. I’ll likely be seeing you again shortly - no doubt our master will keep me running support as we get closer to securing Jaesa Willsaam.”

~*~

The flight back to the Imperial space station is a quiet one.

Malavai tries to focus on the work in front of him, with little success. Across the bridge, Gimrizh has the insides of a lightsaber hilt spread across the terminal and is staring at the pieces with a contemplative frown. He’s tempted to move to the engine room where he might be able to focus, only he’s certain Gimrizh would ask why, and then he’d have to explain why he’s so distracted by the way she’s got the tip of her hydrospanner between her lips.

“How did your end of the mission go, my lord?” he asks.

She pauses in the middle of examining a green lightsaber crystal. “I already told you and Vette. Is there a different answer you’re looking for?”

Yes and no. “I - “ He realizes he’s nervously tapping his lightpen against the terminal screen and forces himself to stop. “May I be blunt, my lord?”

“You don’t need permission. Feel free to be as blunt or rude as you like - I know Vette does.”

He’s hardly going to judge himself by those standards. Lord Gimrizh doesn’t deserve that sort of disrespect. “I… dislike being forced from your side in a battle. You’re my commanding officer, if you were to be injured or killed due to my negligence - “

“Quinn, you’re not obligated to take a blaster bolt for me,” she quickly replies.

In many ways he is. “My lord. You are Sith. It is my duty as a citizen of the Empire to protect and defend the Sith Order. Although I do not particularly hope it will, that could very well include putting myself in harms way instead of you. Not that I think you are the sort of person to order such a thing, of course not, my lord. I was… concerned. When you ordered me from your side.  It is simply that in a fight, nothing is ever completely certain until it is over and done with.”

Something dark flashes in her eyes. “I can handle myself.”

“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to imply - I’m well aware you could crush me with your little finger.”

It’s hard to tell under the black of her tattoos, but he thinks she blushes. “I think it might take me a bit more than that. You don’t strike me as the sort of man easily crushed.”

He finds himself struggling to form a coherent reply.

It’s a stroke of luck when Vette taps on the bridge door. “Hey, the big bad Darth is calling.”

He hurries to his feet only a moment after Gimrizh does.

“You didn’t answer, did you?” she demands.

Vette rolls her eyes as she follows the two of them into the communications room. “Of course I didn’t. I’m not stupid, and I don’t want to talk to him anyways.”

At Gimrizh’s nod, Malavai connects the call. She drops to one knee as soon as the blue light fills the room.

“My master,” she greets, her head bowed.

Baras’s voice sounds almost amused as he greets them. “Good work, my apprentice. It appears as though out exploits have disturbed both padawan and master. Not an hour after you and Draahg killed the Jedi, I received a fascinating message from Nomen Karr.”

Karr contacted Baras directly? Malavai can’t help but feel irritated at that. After going to so much trouble to find even the slightest of clues regarding Jaesa Willsaam or Nomen Karr, the man goes and contacts Baras himself. It isn’t as though it invalidates the work they did to hunt down Willsaam, but it is more than a bit frustrating.

“Our enemy has become desperate,” Baras continues. “Karr has challenged me to a duel.”

That’s absurd. Karr can’t think that Baras will accept? Surely, if there is to be some sort of duel, then there must be a location given - Baras will know where Karr is. There’s nothing to prevent him from sending a dozen squads of Imperial troops to secure the Jedi, or bringing a team of Sith with him as backup. There’s nothing to entice Baras to so much as leave Dromund Kaas, let alone fight a one on one duel to the death. Furthermore, it’s unlike Baras to inform his subordinates before his game pieces are in place. They - or more likely, Lord Gimrizh - are to be involved in this duel.

“He must have lost his mind,” Gimrizh comments when it becomes clear Baras is waiting for her to make some sort of remark.

“Your efforts to disrupt his precious padawan have unnerved him,” Baras agrees, “He seeks to turn the tide. Karr fails to understand that I have outgrown our personal dispute. He expects me to jump at the chance of strangling him. He will be unprepared for you.”

He wants Gimrizh to fight Karr? On one hand, it makes sense. Karr would not be expecting her, and they could perhaps surprise him with that fact. On a skill level, however, Gimrizh does not have the experience in the field that Karr does, and he is a Jedi Master while she is only an apprentice. Malavai doesn’t doubt her. But it is an odd decision to send her alone to deal with Karr.

“As you wish, master,” Gimrizh says flatly.

“The duel is to happen on Hutta,” he informs her, “at the sight of Nomen Karr’s betrayal so long ago. A fitting place for this to end. I will send you coordinates. Defeat him, but do not kill him. His torment will reach out to his padawan. He will be the bait that brings her to you. She must be on the verge of breaking now, and Karr’s desperate actions only confirm it. Subdue the master, and the pupil will come to save him. I have foreseen it.”

A neat plan, but a risky one.

“I will send Draahg to secure the location and command a squad of my soldiers. He will be your backup for this mission. I imagine that he will stay out of sight until Jaesa Willsaam is dealt with. The more people hovering around will tip off Karr or scare the padawan away.”

“Yes, master.”

The call ends.

“Is Baras trying to kill you?” Vette demands.

“Of course not,” Malavai replies. The thought is ridiculous. Baras might not have any affection for his apprentices, but the man is a strategist. From a purely objective point of view, Gimrizh is a valuable playing piece on Baras’s chess board. To just throw her away wouldn’t make any sense unless Baras has some other, more obscure plan that requires her death - Malavai can’t imagine there would be one. It’s in Baras’s best interest for this duel to go his way. When else will they get a chance like this?

Gimrizh chews on her lower lip. “I don’t think so.”

“Darth Baras would not do away with his apprentices so easily,” Malavai reminds Vette.

“That’s not it,” Gimrizh cuts in. Such a small sentence twists his stomach into a worried knot. He doesn’t want to contradict her, but he has to trust in Baras at the same time. “If Baras decides to kill me, he won’t be so… obvious about it. He’d want a confirmed kill, something clean, not - he wouldn’t risk me running.”

“Damn,” Vette mutters. “When did our lives get so krething insane?”

Gimrizh shrugs. “When we first met, you helped me break into Sith tomb in the middle of the Korriban desert to retrieve an ancient lightsaber from a corpse. Our lives have always been insane.”

“That is a very good point,” Vette says slowly.

“Quinn, can you get us to Hutta?”

Malavai pulls himself out of his thoughts. “Yes, my lord. Right away.”

~*~

Hutta is disgusting.

It’s a muggy, humid, bug filled, criminally lenient, swamp with too many Hutts. As much as Gimrizh might have liked it’s more popular moon, the planet itself is distinctly horrible and filthy. They had to dock Horizon at an Imperial station orbiting the planet, which wasn’t bad, and then take a shuttle down, which was alright. But the moment they touched down in the frankly, shitty, city of Jiguuna, she has disliked every single damn second spent on this place.

“This planet is disgusting,” she says, trudging through the swampy muck they call ground here.

“Indeed, my lord,” Quinn agrees, turning his nose up at their surroundings, “It is rather unpleasant.”

“You were here just a couple of days ago,” she comments, almost pitying, “That must be awful. This planet certainly isn’t worth a repeat visit for their scenery, that’s for certain.”

“‘Oh no…” Vette says sarcastically, imitating Gimrizh’s voice and dramatically putting a hand to her forehead like she’s about to swoon, “‘The weather… it’s so awful… I can’t stand it…’ Stars, you two are wimps.”

That’s not funny. “Oh, I’m a wimp?” Gimrizh retorts, “I’m the one who’s about to fight a Jedi Master.”

Vette waves off her protests and explains with a laugh. “There’s a difference. If you lose against Nomen Karr, then that makes your weakness be… well, lightsabers and force attacks. That’s hardcore. As it is now, your weakness is shitty weather. That rates about a negative twenty on the hardcore scale.”

Gimrizh rolls her eyes and says nothing. She knows a losing battle when she sees one, or more accurately, when Vette says it. They do have a lot of swamp to get through, and not a whole lot of time to do it in. The safehouse where Nomen Karr is waiting is at the edge of bog in the remnants of an old mining complex. Right now, they’re making their way through an Evocii workcamp.

They passed a squad of Draahg’s troopers securing the area, and they claim that this place is now under Imperial control, but they would say that and she’s paranoid enough to make her way through the camp with one hand firmly on her lightsaber.

It’s not just paranoia. She knows she’s safe from rebelling workers - she’s a Sith with Quinn and Vette at her sides. It’s fear. She’s safe now, sure. She’s not going to be safe later.

No matter what Baras claims about her having the element of surprise against Nomen Karr, it doesn’t change the fact that she’s never fought anyone even near the Jedi’s level. Projecting false confidence is easy, but actually having faith in her skills when pitted against a Jedi Master is difficult. She lives her life with her lightsaber in her hand, she relies utterly on her ability in combat. When that fails, she has nothing to fall back on.  

And yet, she doesn’t know Nomen Karr. She fears his reputation more than she fears the man himself. Yes, she’s terrified to face him, but she’s afraid of what he’s rumored to be capable of. Not of what she’s seen him do. In a more real, more visceral sense, she’s afraid of Baras because he put her in this mess. It’s another painful reminder that she is entirely at his nonexistent mercy. He put her in Karr’s path without a second thought for her safety, and she’s pretty sure that right now he still sees her as having some value to him. What will he do to her when he decides that value has been used up? Drug her and toss her in front of krething Satele Shan as a gift?

She’s gripping her lightsaber hilt so tightly that when she pries her fingers off of it, deep red imprints are left on her palm. A blueprint of Naga Sadow. Even then, he’d had dozens, if not hundreds, of lightsabers in his collection. Hers is the weakest branch of a mighty tree.

Her pace slows down and then stops completely.

The muddied waters of the bog stop beneath her feet, giving way to a durasteel walkway. A bunker door lies hidden behind a wall of decaying plant matter. It looks decrepit enough that if she didn’t already know what lay inside, she would walk past it and think nothing of it.

Now, she keys in the security code Karr gave her master and the door slides open.

“Don’t let Karr escape,” she says with a nod to Quinn and Vette, “Stay outside, and watch out. If Jaesa Willsaam shows up, let her in, but don’t allow entrance to anyone else.”

“My lord,” Quinn protests, “Regarding the matter we discussed earlier - “

That was different. “This is a close quarters fight with a Jedi Master. I refuse to put the two of you at risk in that manner. You’d just get in the way and then I’d die protecting you.” Harsh as it might sounds, it’s the truth.

He tries not to, but she can see the way he sharply recoils from her, even though he stifles the movement. “I - As you command. Good hunting, my lord.”

She tries to take some of that comfort and wrap it around her like a shield. “Thank you,” she gets out, staring into the dark tunnel ahead, “I suppose I’ll… see you later.”

And then she pushes forward into the safehouse. Which is, for her,  the least safe place possible.

The safehouse is lit, small and scattered light fixtures that burn a sickly yellow. Karr is inviting her in. Stars, he thinks he’s facing Baras and he’s still this confident. Blood drains from her face when she remembers that even her master has never defeated Nomen Karr in combat and he expects her to fight instead. A nearby drop of water, falling from an open pipe startles her so badly that she jumps.

She clenches her fists and mentally slaps herself. So what if Baras has never beaten Karr? Baras is an old man, out of the field for a decade, who’s become far too used to winning a battle before it even begins. She shouldn’t be afraid of Karr, she should be angry with him, for assuming to think that he’s better than her. For taking one glance at her and pegging her - accurately perhaps - as nothing more than a pawn for him to play with. Karr is just as bad as Baras, and despite the bitter knowledge that she can never and will never send Baras into the dirt to save herself, she can damn well do it to Karr.

And besides, she just told Quinn that she’d be back. She can’t die in this fight if she’s going to see them later, now can she? It’s a peculiar feeling. She has people she needs to come back too now.

Through passion, I gain strength.

How many victories does she need before her chains are broken?

She steps into the main chamber, a low ceilinged room with flame, open flame flickering and casting shadows on the metal walls of the bunker. In front of what looks to be an altar is a man. He’s kneeling in meditation, his back to her.

Nomen Karr.

“So,” he says disappointedly, his voice louder than it should be in the empty room, “Baras sends his apprentice instead. I should have known he couldn’t be trusted. I however, am a man of my word. I’m here, alone, as agreed. Your master shows himself as both a liar and a coward to send you in his stead.”

Karr’s just a man, she tells herself, taking a deep breath and imagining that as she exhales she releases all her fear, just one man plagued with overconfidence.

“Did he send you here to die?”

“He sent me to take out the trash,” she tells Karr lightly.

This at least, seems to get his attention. He stands at last and turns to face her. Before speaking, he gazes slowly up and down her figure, as though trying to see straight through and into the heart of her. “You are young in the force,” he says to her, trying to intimidate her perhaps, or scold her like a child. “A mere apprentice. I’m a full Jedi Master.”

She draws a thin smirk on her face, like putting on battle armor. “It hardly seems fair for you. You do, after all, have so many years of experience.”

Karr scoffs, “You are Baras’s pawn - a resourceful one perhaps, but still only that.”

“I know,” she replies honestly, “I am only a pawn of Baras’s. Jaesa Willsaam is but a mere pawn as well and you are staking all your hopes on her. What does that say about us pawns then?”

“Less than you imagine,” he says firmly. “Jaesa Willsaam is unlike anyone you have ever encountered. To compare you to her is to compare the snarling akk dog to the mighty dactillion - both may be beasts, but one is clearly superior. I will end you here, and once you are out of our way, Jaesa will provide the proof I need to open the Jedi Council’s eyes and expose Baras’s network of spies.”

“Such lofty goals,” she drawls.

He furrows his brow in anger and then draws his saber, “Enough, I’ll waste no more time with this.” There’s the hiss and snap of energy that her mind pins as lightsaber as he activates a glowing green blade. “This ends now, Sith.”

No, she thinks , this ends for him but not for me.

She unclips both her sabers and ignites them, the red and blue clashing in the light. “For you it does,” she agrees.

He eyes her sabers as he slowly advances, cautious steps that spiral in towards her. “Blue is not the color of the Sith. Which Jedi did you kill to take it from?”

“Sorry,” she flips her lightsabers over in her hands, “I’ll tell you who gave me this saber when you tell me where Jaesa Willsaam is. And we both know neither of those things are going to happen. So shut up and fight.”

“Very well,” Karr says between gritted teeth.

And then he runs forward. Gimrizh just has time to think, fuck, he’s fast, before his saber is slamming into her red one. Strong too.

She uses both blades to push him back and throw him off her. Falling low to the ground, she moves into a sweeping strike aimed for his legs, her blades held in a reverse grip and flashing out to cut his knees out from under him. Karr avoids her by tumbling nimby through the air and over her head, landing behind her. He immediately stabs at her unprotected back, trying to catch her off guard.

His saber hits the ground with a screech. The energy beam melts a red hot line into the metal floor instead. She comes up from her tumble and crouches in a low wide stance, then kicks off the ground and heads for him with the force of swinging hammer.

A strong flick of his blade sends both her swords and his flinging to the side. Go with the blow or resist - she makes a split second decision, loosening up her limbs and rolling into the motion. Karr quickly reigns his saber back in closer to his body, keeping his defenses to tightly controlled twists of his wrist that deflect her attacks. In contrast, she slashes at him with a loose and quick fury, flipping her blades from reverse grip to forward and then back to reverse as openings appear. She whirls around in a circle to build up momentum and then releases it with a clash of blades, her sabers slamming into his one after the other, over and over as she keeps attacking.

It’s a moment that stretches on into an infinity of attacks, her arms jarring from constant impact and her hearts pounding blood through her body.

Finally her blue saber breaks through Karr’s defenses to paint a wide red stripe across his upper right arm.

She can see him flinch, see the way his lip curls into a frown, and she knows from experience how painful that sort of injury is. Karr doesn’t so much as falter for a second. And then it turns into an entirely different sort of battle.

Reaching out with his hand, he sends the two vases filled with candlefire behind her to hurdle towards her back.

Shit - she can’t get burned.

She backflips over them a second before they fly through the space she was previously occupying. Both head for Nomen Karr instead now, and he sends them crashing harmlessly to his sides with a flick of his lightsaber. As he’s distracted defending from his own attack, she throws her red saber at his head.

Spotting it just in time, he ducks and let it slice into the wall behind him before she calls it back to her hand. Karr raises his hands and she can feel the pull on the force. She darts her eyes around the room to check for anything else he might throw at her. It’s relatively bare, besides the remains of the two burners, there’s no furniture and nothing on the walls besides light fixtures and control panels. She could maybe use the ruined burners like she had against Yonlach, but that takes a concentration that she’s uncertain she’ll be able to get in this fight. There’s nothing Karr could be trying to throw at her, so what’s he doing?

She hears it before she sees it. There’s a creak and groan of metal and a huge durasteel beam is falling from the ceiling to crush her.

Ignoring the urge to hack it to bits, she reaches out with the force and catches it before it can turn her into a bloody smear. She holds it above her head with an ease that surprises her. It doesn’t have the weight that she’d expect from something so large and heavy. It’s just as light as anything else is when floated through the air on the force.

Karr’s eyes widen as she takes his weapon and launches it right back at him like tossing a stone.

It’s his turn to resort to his lightsaber. He slashes the beam in half and sends the two chunks of metal crashing into the wall.

He straightens up, even as she can see the way his shoulders shudder from exertion, the way his breath is rushed. “I see Baras knows how to train a dog. How long did he spend preparing you to try and kill me?”

“Just stand down, Karr.”

“Never!” he snarls, rushing forward to lock blades with her.

They slash and hack at each other again, blinding sparks shooting from their sabers as they exchange blows.

Only this is… different. Karr is less focused, less calm. His saber catches between the valley of her two blades, and as he presses down on her she can feel tendrils of the dark side snatch out at him and sneak into his presence. She can feel anger, hatred, jealousy, rage from him and it’s almost shocking in how unexpected it is.

Is the famed war hero of a Jedi Master actually falling?

She slashes with her blades to push his saber to the side and plants a heavy kick to his torso. He staggers backwards, face contorted with anger.

“I’m not trying to kill you. Surrender,” she orders, watching the rage that marrs his face.  

“No!” Karr commands, clutching his chest with his injured arm and pointing his lightsaber at her. The tip of the blade wavers. He’s shaking. “I will never surrender to a Sith, to say nothing of one of Baras’s pets!”

“Stand down!” she repeats forcefully.

He lunges for her, “You’ll die first!”

She can feel the dark side radiate off of him in powerful waves, filling his body with power. It’s a strength she knows well, But she’s known it her whole life, knows how it ebbs and flows, how to let it guide her. He’s known it for a few minutes and he’s utterly under its control, like how a man stepping into deep water for the first time doesn’t know how to swim.

He’s off balance.

The wild slash of his saber goes over her head, missing by a mile. She twists underneath his outstretched arm and stabs her blue saber through his shoulder.

There’s a clatter as his saber falls from his unresponsive fingers and then a scream of uncontrolled pain. Karr falls to the ground, defeated by his own arrogance. “No!“ he cries out, word broken and interspersed with gasps of pain, “I will not fall to you.”

“You’ve fallen to yourself.”

He lifts his head to glare at her with all the fury of a mad fallen Jedi. “I do what I must to win. Baras can kill me, but if he does so, you will never find Jaesa Willsaam.”

“Oh no,” she says, deactivating her lightsabers, “I’m not killing you yet.”

His eyes widen till she can see the red of the dark side bleed into his brown irises as he understands the implication of what she’s saying. Before he can do anything further, she steps forward and slams the hilt of her saber into his temple.

Karr hits the ground with a thud, unconscious.

Step one is over. Gimrizh stumbles backwards and takes a few deep breaths before she can do anything else. Then she clips her lightsabers back onto her belt and speaks into her commlink, “Quinn, Nomen Karr is defeated,” she informs the captain, “I’m going to restrain him and wait for Jaesa Willsaam to make her appearance.”

“Understood, my lord,” Quinn’s voice replies and then the comm goes silent.

She picks up Karr’s body with the force and levitates him over to a nearby pillar. Propping his body against the durasteel beam, she unearths a thin spool of wire from her pockets that she uses to tie him up with. She takes care to use the last of the wire to wrap his fingers and hands together into a complicated mess, hoping to prevent him to untying himself and also hinder his ability to influence objects with the force.

Then she takes his lightsaber and goes to wait.

It won’t be long now, she can sense something waiting to happen, like a glass tilting on the edge of a shelf, one tiny vibration away from falling. The force is taut with it, tugging at her like a strong desert wind grabbing at her hair and clothes. Jaesa’s got the message now. It just depends on how close by she is, and Gimrizh suspects that Karr would have wanted her nearby for this. They’ve been pretty certain Jaesa is within Hutt space for a while now. Karr was expecting Baras and he was expecting a win. That means he wasn’t planning to keep the apprentice in hiding for much longer.

Wanting to do something to busy her hands, she starts picking apart Karr’s lightsaber.

Using the force, her fingernails, and her teeth, she disassembles it into base parts. It’s made of expensive materials, precious metals for the conductors and a chrome plated durasteel for the main hilt that will never need a polish. She slowly unwraps every last tiny wire from around the green kyber crystal and holds the small gem up to the light.

A Jedi’s crystal. Undeniably. Still such a beautiful thing. She wonders where he got it. Where did the red one in her Korriban saber come from? Did Naga Sadow retrieve it from a cave or create it synthetically, as some of the more recent models are built? Where did Quorian Dorjis get his? She knows Jedi refuse to make synthetic crystals despite the convenience - she thinks that he found his on his own and that his blade was built with his own hands. That fits what she knows about Quorian.

“My lord,” Quinn’s voice echoes from her commlink and she has it up to her ear in a second. The force is practically humming and she can guess what that means. “The padawan approaches.”

She swallows and then presses a button on her comm. “Thank you, Quinn. Let her through.”

Pocketing the crystal and abandoning the rest of the blade, she leaps to her feet and faces the door, readying herself for the padawan.

“No…” Karr mutters, his eyes slowly fluttering open to reveal the blood red gaze of the Sith, “Jaesa is mine.”

Gimrizh kicks him to full coherency. “Now now,” she chastises, “There’s no reason for you to become so distraught.”

His eyes lock on her and she can feel that intense anger from him again, a burning flame that has no place in the heart of a Jedi. “I was supposed to expose Baras and open the Jedi Council’s eyes! It is my destiny! Jaesa is mine! The glory of defeating Baras is mine!”

The force whispers a warning in her ears and she knows without a shadow of doubt that Jaesa Willsaam has arrived.

“Hello again,” she says in greeting, turning to face the padawan at the door.

Jaesa Willsaam looks younger than she appeared on the holo. The baggy robes of a Jedi dwarf her. It takes only a moment for her to narrow her eyes at the scene in front of her. She straightens up and strengthens herself and Gimrizh sees a woman who stared down that sand beast in the caves of Tatooine. She sees the woman who called her up and invited her to sit down, one on one and end this. That’s the Jaesa Willsaam Baras wants as his newest apprentice.

“Sith,” Jaesa says, “Release Master Karr.”

“No! I told you to stay put!” Karr screams, straining against his bonds. “Stupid child! For all your power, you have understood nothing!”

Jaesa recoils from the thing her master is becoming and then turns back to pin Gimrizh with a surprisingly angry stare. “Korribanil, please step away from my master.”

“I’m not doing anything to him,” Gimrizh replies. Either way, she does take a few deliberate steps away from Karr. If it helps placate Jaesa, then it doesn’t matter.

Carefully at first, as if she suspects that this is a trap and Gimrizh will cut her head off the moment she comes with in biting distance, Jaesa approaches her master. Once she’s close enough, she drops to one knee and tries to tug at her master’s restraints. “I’ll get you out of here, Master Karr, I promise. Are you alright - “

“Foolish girl!” He struggles furiously against his bonds, his sweat-slicked hair falling into his red eyes. “You have ruined everything!”

“I must say,” Gimrizh comments, “I didn’t know our masters speak to their apprentices so similarly.”

There’s something small and tight in Jaesa’s eyes. “How my master speaks to me is not your concern.” The mess of wire Gimrizh tied Karr’s fingers into eludes Jaesa, no matter how hard or desperately she tugs at them. To make it worse, he won’t stop struggling. “Was it worth it, Korribanil? We could have talked this out. You were sincere during our conversation, I felt it in the force, you weren’t going to attack - what changed?”

“I didn’t board your ship intending to attack your comrades,” she replies.

“I felt them die,” Jaesa says. “I’ve spent many months training with them - they were some of my earliest teachers besides Master Karr. Regardless of your intent, they were precious to me and I - “ She pauses. Thinks her sentence through. “You’ve killed many on your hunt for me. That can’t stand.”

Gimrizh crosses her arms. It would be better if this didn’t have to come to a fight. “And what has your master ordered you to do?”

The padawan flinches.

Karr protests at seeing his apprentice doubt. “It’s Baras! He’s manipulating us all! Kill the Sith! Kill Baras’s liar and you’ll see!”

“So he has ordered you to kill before.” She raises an eyebrow. A bit of pity claws into her hearts. Both of them are in the same position. Jaesa just happened to end up on the wrong side through no reason other than the nitpicky way the Empire and the Republic picked their Alderaanian allies. “I’m still amenable to trying to talk this out. It doesn’t seem as though your master is. I won’t blame you - it isn’t as though I can go against my master’s orders.”

Karr snarls. “What are you doing? I will not let Baras get the satisfaction of stealing you from me!”

There’s a barely there wince at her master’s words, but Jaesa is still staring at Gimrizh. “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t want you dead.”

“Lies!” Karr screams. His red eyes are wide in fury and yet Jaesa does not seem to have noticed the change. Is this how Karr has always treated her?

Jaesa frowns. “You spared my parents and Master Yonlach and then you killed my friends. You hunt me down and then refuse to fight me.”

They both know that’s not what either of them want. “Do as the Jedi Order teaches then,” Gimrizh says, forcing her voice to remain calm. “Strike down the big bad Sith.”

Kill her!”

Something approaching disgust flickers across Jaesa’s expression as she turns to openly stares at her master. “Master, your eyes - “ Her mouth falls open in surprise. “I don’t understand,” she repeats.

“Your master dug too deeply towards the dark side during our fight,” Gimrizh explains.

“But he’s not acting any different - “ Jaesa snaps her jaw shut.

Red glints in Karr’s eyes. Desperation, Gimrizh thinks. If this continues, Jaesa will have some interesting new revelations about her master that Karr undoubtedly would prefer to keep hidden. Stupid man. He should never have been so arrogant as to challenge Baras to this duel in the first place. “Kill the Sith. I’ll see you knighted for this, Jaesa. Baras wants you and me dead - he wants to take you from me, just as he has always taken what is mine!”

Jaesa gets to her feet. She takes a step back from him. “Possiviness, rage, an eagerness to kill - master, those aren’t - the Jedi Order isn’t - “

“Shut up and kill the Sith!”

Slowly, deliberately, Jaesa closes her eyes.

Karr panics, “Don’t - “

A calm, steady aura radiates through the force. It’s the too-pure bleach of the light side, but focused and intense in a way that Gimrizh isn’t used to from Jedi. It is purposeful, and in its purpose it is powerful. She can almost see the energy in the air as Jaesa forms it into a lance that pierces through Karr’s mind. A non-force sensitive would be blind to it,and Gimrizh gets the strangest sense that she can only tell what is going on because Jaesa wants her to know.

That sort of ability, with that control, and that level of intent is just insane. No wonder Baras is so afraid of it.

“I sense - pride,” Jeasa says, a bitter tone lacing that one word like it has caused her personal offense, “And envy - and hate - vengeance - No! This can’t be right - I would have known earlier - “ She opens her eyes and stares down at her master. “You told me never to use my power unless you allowed it. Is this why? Were you hiding this?”

There’s confusion in her wide eyes and her furrowed brow, and beyond that there’s a deep heartbreak. Her reality is splintering around her - Gimrizh knows from experience how difficult it is to deal with that. The Jedi Order must have been a nice illusion to live in.

“That’s what the Jedi Order does. It masks, it pretends, and it hides,” Gimrizh tells her, as gently as she can. “Those that run from their emotions will eventually be overcome by them.”

Jaesa stumbles backwards, her eyes open and pinning Karr with a shattered look. “I don’t know what to believe anymore. You told me there was order to the galaxy, that you would show me the truth! But nothing is like you said!”

“It’s a Sith trick!” Karr protests. “You stupid girl, can’t you see!?”

“I thought I could,” she says after a long pause. “I don’t know what to trust in anymore.”

Reluctantly, Jaesa ignites a double bladed yellow saberstaff and holds it at the ready. Yellow. Not the blues or greens standard of Jedi. Interesting.

Yellow light blurs like a star.

Gimrizh only just manages to ignite her blades in time and it is - Jaesa can’t be this weak. Her attack is easily thrown to the side and then Gimrizh presses her red blade against Jaesa’s neck.

She drinks in the sudden surprise, the shock on Jaesa’s face and then watches it melt away to acceptance. Her lightsaber hovers a millimeter above her opponent's skin. The red beam of light steadily points towards Jaesa’s open expression.

“I see,” Jaesa whispers.

It was a test.

Of course. If the padawan’s confidence in her own abilities has been shaken, how could she trust whatever she might have read in Gimrizh? No wonder the attack had been weak, Jaesa purposefully made herself seem weaker than she actually is in order to see if Gimrizh would exploit the opening or not. But to what purpose? Merely to see if she’s a killer or not? Or is that just one small aspect of a larger theory she’s testing?

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

Jaesa nods, slowly and deliberately. She deactivates her staff and clips it back to her belt. “Yes, I believe I did. Shall we talk?”

Karr pulls at the wire and tries to lunge for his padawan. “Jaesa!” he snarls at her, spittle flying from his mouth, “I’ll see to it that the Jedi disavow you! You will be labeled as an enemy of the Order!”

She turns away. “Then I’ll finally know where I stand with you.”

They’re done with Karr. Gimrizh bends down to rip a strip of fabric off his robe. “Do you mind?” When Jaesa shakes her head, she stuffs the fabric into Karr’s mouth, gagging him. At least that will keep him from interrupting.

“What happens now?” Jaesa asks, resignation writ over her every feature.

“Darth Baras wishes to teach you the ways of the Sith. Should you agree, you’ll become his newest, and likely most privileged apprentice.” If only Gimrizh were so lucky. “Your parents are on Dromund Kaas, and they will be well taken care of. While I can’t say exactly what Baras would want you to do in his service, you will have money, security, and the freedom to be who you are.”

“I’d be trading Karr’s leash for his.”

“Yes. Only you’d also be getting your parents. You’d be free to see them whenever you want. You’d be free to feel. The dark side - the force will set you free. That’s what the Sith Order teaches. No masks.”

Jaesa opens her mouth and then closes it. She glances down at Karr. “And if I refuse?”

“I can’t promise anything then. There are a number of Imperial soldiers closing in on our position as we speak, and among them is a Sith higher in rank and power than me,” she warns. “I’m not in a place where I can change Baras’s mind. If you don’t go quietly, you’ll be taken by force, and I have no idea what lengths Baras will go to if he thinks he can turn you or win your loyalty.”

She’s silent for a long time. Gimrizh’s comm gives two short beeps - the signal that Draahg is in position and standing by.

“What will happen to Master Karr?” she asks at last.

Gimrizh can only guess. “We’ll be taking him to Dromund Kaas. Beyond that - I don’t know for certain.”

“I thought for so long that I could trust the Jedi Order. That I could trust my master. That I could trust my abilities,” Jaesa muses. “I don’t know what to believe in now. Blind faith would have had me serving Master Karr like a fool.” She stares Gimrizh straight in the eyes, pinning her with a fierce intensity. “I will go with you to Dromund Kaas. And I will see what happens to Nomen Karr with my own two eyes. Then I’ll make my choice.”

~*~

Draahg paces the bridge of Exalted Storm, one of the half dozen Harrowers that Darth Baras can commandeer. Korribanil and her crew have docked their own ship - Horizon - in the hangar bay for the return trip to Dromund Kaas. Where Nomen Karr will finally face Baras’s nonexistent mercy.

He has to admit, he’s surprised Korribanil was able to convince Willsaam to come quietly. The padawan didn’t seem the type. He wonders what tactics Korribanil had utilized, and which of them had finally swayed Willsaam to the dark side. Oh well - it hardly matters anymore. Sure, Willsaam is still a powerhouse, but apparently she is now a lesser priority than Korribanil. That is the most surprising change of all. Korribanil, of all people, is the one to watch. And here Draahg had thought that the Zabrak would be facing a tragic KIA sentence the moment she handed Willsaam over.

Korribanil arrives.

He pastes a smile onto his face and watches her step out of the turbolift on the far end of the bridge.

Although he hates to admit it, she looks like a seamless addition as she strides through the center aisle and past the lines of terminals where the crew is busying away. Her horns and tattoos are jarring compared to the rest of the human crew, but she ignores them as she’s supposed to, nods to the captain as she’s supposed to, and then joins Draahg at his side and waits for him to speak first. As she’s supposed to.

“Welcome aboard,” he greets. “Did you escort Karr to the holding cells?”

“Yes. Thank you for providing support - I could not have brought him in on my own. Nor could I have held him on my ship.”

“A Fury-class Interceptor, right? I saw the docking commands.” He already knows, but it’s good to make small talk. Get her to warm up to him.

“That’s correct. Horizon.”

He nods slowly as though this is news to him. “It must be a bit cramped on there. There are quarters available for you aboard this ship. Very spacious, as befits a Sith.” Quarters that are right next to his. They have a long hyperspace journey ahead of them, after all. Plenty of time for them to get to know one another better.

She bites her lip. “Thank you, that’s very generous, but I’m perfectly happy remaining aboard Horizon.”

“Oh? That’s a shame.”

“Jaesa Willsaam is still under supervision - one of my crew is watching her along with a squad of men,” she reports. “I am unsure where to place her. She agreed to come quietly, but she hasn’t agreed to be Baras’s apprentice yet.”

How inconvenient. “Toss her in a holding cell. A nice one, but if she hasn’t fallen completely, she can’t be trusted.”

“Of course.”

As strange as Willsaam’s suddenly lowered priority designation is, Draahg still thinks that the padawan needs to be their top priority. Korribanil also isn’t in the know yet, and he can’t give away the fact that Willsaam doesn’t matter so much anymore. Baras will inform her when it is time for her to know. And honestly, Willsaam is a threat - regardless of what Baras thinks. Draahg won’t let her out of a prison cell until they arrive in Kaas City.

“By the way, I’m impressed with your capture of Willsaam. How did you convince her to come quietly?”

Korribanil is usually easy to read and yet now her face is suddenly a blank. “I simply reminded her that her parents lives were on the line. She also seems attached to her master, even after everything. She wants to see his fate.”

“Sentimentality? In a Jedi? Clearly Karr did a poor job of training her.”

“All the better for us.”

“I suppose our master will be pleased,” he comments. “He is rather fond of apprentice collecting.”

“Ah, I don’t think I’ve been his apprentice long enough to notice one way or the other.” How unexpectedly diplomatic from a Korribanil brute. “Either way, I expect to be swiftly relegated to the backlines once Willsaam has converted. I’ll be pleased to have made such a contribution to our master’s power base.”

What pretty lies.

Draahg gives her a slow smile that he hopes is just the right brand of enticing for her. He knows how to play Baras’s games and he knows how to cozy up to his master’s new apprentices. “If you have time, I’d love it if you’d have dinner with me tonight. I’m sure you could use a drink after such a long day.”

She tugs on her hair. “Ah, thank you, but I have to decline. Maybe some other time?”

Damn. “Of course. I’m only hoping to make your trip through hyperspace a comfortable one. This is our master’s Harrower, after all. You’re just as entitled to it’s amenities as I am.”

“Thank you again,” she says, politely, and with a bow. “Please excuse me.”

He waves her off. “Dismissed. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

What a frustrating woman.

~*~

Jaesa sits cross-legged on the floor of her cell.

Has she made a horrible mistake? She’d felt as though she had no choice but to go with Korribanil - and really her choice was go on her own two feet or be dragged. Once she’s in Imperial space, she won’t be able to leave unless it’s an escape attempt. Vague notions of rescuing her parents and staging a daring escape back to the Republic had indeed been drifting through her head when she’d told Korribanil she’d go quietly, it’s true. Those thoughts seem foolishly naive now.

At least if she seems a willing prisoner, she’ll have more room to maneuver. Korribanil is an apprentice of Baras’s, and yet she’s allowed her own ship. Once Jaesa sees what happens to her master, if she decides to leave, she can just work her way up to the point where she has a ship of her own. Then she can fly it back to Alder - Coruscant.

The Empire is still on Alderaan.

And an Imperial ship would be shot down before it could get into Coruscant’s air space.

Images of Karr’s wild red eyes flicker behind her closed eyelids. He’d seemed both an untamed animal filled with rage, and also just the same as he always had. He didn’t treat her any differently than he had when he’d been a Jedi. And yet she’d seen none of that madness in Korribanil’s eyes.

After everything that’s happened, after everything that she’s seen, she’s not sure she can return to the Jedi Order.

Even if she could escape the Sith with her parents.

A flicker in the force approaches. Uncertain, but not malicious. Someone kind? Someone familiar, she recognizes them from her brief containment in the hangar bay.

“Are you alright?”

She opens her eyes. The Twi’lek from Korribanil’s crew is sitting on the floor across from her, separated by a containment field. Her purple eyes hold an honest concern that Jaesa hasn’t been expecting. At least, the force tells her that it’s sincere. She doesn’t know how blindly she can trust her own abilities after her former master remained hidden from her sight for so many years.

“As well as can be expected,” she replies. “What’s your name?”

The Twi’lek laughs nervously. “Oh, sorry about that. Totally forgot that we kinda know a lot about you, but you don’t know a lot about us. I’m Vette. I work for Gimrizh.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Doubt it,” Vette says with a rude snort. “No offense, but I doubt you’re thrilled to be here right now.”

“I’ve been better places.”

“Sorry. I’m not trying to - shit, I’m no good at this. I wanted to say sorry. I don’t approve of everything that Gimrizh does, but she’s a decent sort, and well I know being Baras’s apprentice will suck if you choose that path, but it’s manageable, Gimrizh has managed and - sorry, I don’t mean to ramble at you.”

Jaesa feels a smile tug at her lips. “I don’t mind. You’re a much more interesting conversation partner than the guards.”

“I should hope so. So. How are you really feeling?”

She’s been trying to meditate. To let her emotions dissipate into the force. It’s never been her speciality, to say the least, and now when she tries she finds that they don’t dissipate at all. The force doesn’t sweep them away for her when she tries, it simply acts as a block to help her push them down. She’s changed too much to just let her emotions go. And so instead she has to try and find another way to get rid of her feelings.

“I don’t know,” she replies honestly. “Uneasy. Once I see what becomes of my master, that chapter of my life will be closed, and from there on out I do not know what I will do or what will happen to me.”

“You’re really attached to Karr, huh?”

“No. Yes. Maybe? It’s been… a very long day preceded by a very long six months.”

Vette jerks her thumb towards the other cell blocks. “I heard him cursing your name as I passed. If I were you, I’d look into getting a better master.”

“And that’s Baras?”

“What? No. Maybe?”

“It’s been a very long six months for you as well then?”

Vette’s laugh takes Jaesa by surprise, even though it’s what she’s been aiming for. In a way. She’d just wanted to lighten the mood, to distract from the tumultuous everything. Vette tucks one of her lekku behind her shoulder. “Sounds about right. Hell, six months ago I was technically a slave.”

Jaesa’s never met anyone who admitted to that before. “And now?”

“Now I’m a force-damned citizen.” Vette fishes something out of her pocket with a grin. She presses the semi-transparent card up to the containment field, proudly displaying the ID that proclaims, in small print, citizenship status.

“But you’ve been working for the Empire?”

“Yep - don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of flimsiwork and stuff, and the Empire isn’t really that progressive or anything, but it happened.” Vette shrugs. She carefully tucks the card back into her shirt pocket and gives it a loving pat. “There are just as many paths in the Empire as there can be in the Republic. Hell, from what I’ve seen, Sith get more ordering-about privileges than Jedi do.”

Jaesa has no interest in command. Not really. “Are you here to try and convert me?”

“What? No. I guess it does sound that way, but the choice is yours to make. I just… don’t want to see you get killed by Baras.”

“Is that what will happen to me if I refuse? Korribanil was a bit vague.”

It’s clear from the long moment of hesitation that Vette’s going to say yes. “Baras isn’t the nicest of Sith. Gimrizh might not kill you unless you force her, but Baras will lock you up until he can turn you or kill you if he can’t.”

Jaesa can’t go back to the Jedi.

“I don’t know.” Vette stands up, scratching the back of her head, nervousness running through her. “You didn't deserve this, but it’s not over for you. I thought it was over for me when I was captured by the Sith a year ago. And it wasn’t. There are options, is all.”

“Options might be… nice.”

Vette returns Jaesa’s fleeting smile with a brilliant beaming grin that could convince the evilest of Sith to pledge themselves to the light side. A smile like that could be a dangerous sort of thing, Jaesa thinks thinks.

~*~

Malavai is sitting on his bunk, trying to write up a report to Lord Baras and simultaneously ignoring the sounds of Vette banging around in the engine room. Regrettably, he knows very little of what actually transpired on Hutta. He wasn’t present during the confrontation between Lord Gimrizh and Karr, or her and Jaesa Willsaam. Yes, he did see Willsaam briefly as she entered the safe house, but it was a two second encounter. His knowledge is limited.

But Lord Baras will want to know something about this and so he might as well start writing down what little he knows.

There’s a quiet knock on his door and then Lord Gimrizh slides in, hovering uncertainly by the hatch. “Quinn? Do you have a moment?”

He tosses the datapad aside and stands. “My lord, is there something I can help you with?”

“I was wondering if you’d join me in the galley?”

“Of course. Just give me a minute to finish this up.”

She ducks out and he hastily locks his datapad before placing it back in its proper place. He hadn’t been expecting to see Gimrizh for a while yet - frankly he hadn’t been expecting her to return to Horizon until they arrive on Dromund Kaas. Surely she has a whirlwind of duties to get to. Contacting Baras, working with Draahg, and she’s never served aboard a Harrower before, so going straight to being second in command of one must be a big step up for her. Why is she wasting her time back here, with him?

Something warm, nutty and floral wafts out of the galley as he walks in. Gimrizh is pouring two mugs of tea. Suddenly the familiarity of the scent hits him, and he pins the tea as a rich Kaasi black. He didn’t know they had any on board. She tilts her head up and smiles at him. “Cream and sugar?”

He slowly takes a seat at the counter. “Ah, yes. Thank you, my lord.”

There’s a soft clink as she sets the two mugs down on the counter. She takes a seat next to him with her own mug, cradling it in both her hands to leech the warmth from it. Malavai wraps his hand around his cup. Gives it two stirs with a spoon. He takes a deep breath, luxuriating in the aroma before taking his first sip.

For years, he’d have a cup of Kaasi black every morning. It was an indulgent marker of his teenage years that he’d abandoned once he’d turned eighteen and entered active service. A familiarity wraps around him like a blanket, tugging him gently back to the apartment he’d lived in before Rhen Var happened. Between deployments, his father would always cook breakfast in the mornings, the smell of sizzling egg mixing with the earthiness of tea leaves and the bitterness of his mother’s caf.

The tea had been discarded in favor of a black caf to fuel long working nights, and then such luxuries became completely impossible once he was stuck on Balmorra. Gimrizh must have found some in the Harrower’s stock.

“This used to be my favorite,” he murmurs, staring into the rich brown tea as though it will impart some mysterious wisdom. “How did you know?”

She too is seemingly engrossed with staring at her tea. “I went looking through the supplies here in search of caf. The tea leaves smelled like something you might like.”

“Ah. Is there a special occasion I’ve forgotten about?”

“With everything that’s happened, I haven't gotten a chance to say - ‘congratulations on your defeat of Voloren’.” She raises her mug in a toast. “So, to you. Congratulations, Quinn.”

Guilt twists in his stomach. “Thank you, my lord. You needn’t have done this.”

“I wanted to. After everything, you deserve a break.”

“So do you.”

She tightens her grip on her mug. “I’m fine.”

“Of course, my lord.” He takes another long sip of tea, savoring the peaceful familial memories, and hoping - perhaps foolishly - that Gimrizh can do the same.

“Actually.” One of her hands abandons the tea to wrap a fist into her hair. She tugs on it while she slowly turns her sentence over in her head. Malavai is about to stop her, to remind her that she doesn’t have to tell him anything, that he’s hardly in a position to demand that of her. And then she carefully says, “If you don’t mind, I was - I was wondering if I could talk to you about Yaina.”

~*~

 

Chapter Text

~*~

Gimrizh does not know when she arrived on Korriban, only that she was quite young and that where she was before doesn’t matter. That isn’t unusual, most of the acolytes here are taken before they are old enough to remember families or home planets. This, the overseers tell them, is key. The Sith Order, and by extension, the Empire, is the only family they need. All other blood ties are irrelevant.

They know this can’t be completely true. It isn’t like that with all Sith. Some come from prominent families, siblings or parents that are strong in the force. Those that are human, or red Sith, that have living family do not go to the Institutes. Those like her - the orphaned, the sub-humans - those are sent to the various Institutes that dot Imperial planets.

The Fifth Sith Acclimation and Preliminary Education Institute on Korriban lies far to the north of the main Academy and all Gimrizh’s remembered life has been spent within the confines of it’s walls.

She is eleven years old.

She wakes up at half past four. At five, she joins her class for morning training. At nine, they have class. At fifteen hundred, training again. They are released by eighteen hundred. Rinse and repeat the next day.

Despite the new Treaty of Coruscant, the workload is not lessened. A proper Sith is always vigilant.

Gimrizh is going to be a proper Sith, and so she sits at her desk with her back straight as a board even though she really wants to fall asleep.

“Attention!”

The background chatter in the classroom ceases. Every one of them scrambles to their feet immediately as Overseer Rihne enters the room. As their class has most - if not all - of the red Sith acolytes in Institute Five, they are also lucky enough to have a red Sith as their instructor. He stands at the front of the room, hands clasped behind his back, and surveys the class with an unimpressed expression.

“Irien!” he barks, addressing an acolyte in the front row. “Straighten up!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Gimrizh! What is that on your uniform?”

She feels her face turn red. On her way to class she had not been attentive enough, and Reus and Irien - two of the red Sith boys - had caught her off guard. “Ink, sir.”

“I expect no further uniform violations from you, understand? Be grateful I’m giving you a warning.” Rihne jots down a mark on his datapad. “If you don’t clean that up by this afternoon I’ll have you sent to the Disciplinarian.”

Her quiet reply is addressed to her shoes. “Yes, sir.”

Rihne accepts this with a curt look before ignoring her completely. “Before we begin, there is a brief matter that must be addressed. A new acolyte will be joining our class from today onwards.”

He waves his hand at the door. It slides open and a girl steps into the classroom. She’s the same age as the rest of them, already wearing the Institute uniform. The similarities end there. Green skin, strange geometric tattoos - Mirialan. The only sub-human in their class besides Gimrizh. And her eyes are a strange deep green, not the reds and oranges that all Sith have. Only the youngest acolytes here have yet to change eye color.

“This is Yaina Korribanil.” He turns briefly to the new girl - Yaina. “Take your seat and we will begin.”

She doesn’t reply. To everyone’s shock, Rihne doesn’t give her a slap and demand proper address, as he would have for the rest of them. The entire class is subtly staring at her as she walks down the rows of desks to sit directly behind Gimrizh.

Once she sits, Rihne begins immediately. Today’s lecture is on Imperial history and Gimrizh hurriedly takes notes on her datapad, her lightpen moving a kilometer a minute. She’d done poorly on a history test last week and new student or not, she must do better during the next set of examinations or else.

“Pst.”

Gimrizh freezes. There’s enough ambient noise, what with Rihne’s voice, the shuffling of students, and the tapping on datapads, to easily cover Yaina’s whisper. But still.

“What’s your name?”

“Gimrizh,” she mumbles.

“Nice. I’m Yaina. Yaina Rineth.”

~*~

Gimrizh is twelve and this is the seventh time she’s had her ribs broken.

A vicious black and blue bruise covers half her face and she’s going to be breathing funny for a week, even with kolto. She clutches her chest with one hand and pushes herself out of the dirt with the other. Every time they’re put into groups for sparring practice, Overseer Rihne looks the other way. None of the red Sith acolytes are allowed to get this beaten up. Bloody spittle dribbles from between her lips.

“Come on, horns!” Reus complains. There’s a grin on his lips as he digs his hands into his pockets and watches her struggle. “Get up.”

A familiar hand wraps gently around Gimrizh’s hips, avoiding her chest. Yaina helps her stagger up onto her uneasy and trembling feet. There’s a vicious glare burning in her green eyes. “Stay away from her! You’ve done enough damage for one day.”

“She hasn’t surrendered,” he reminds them, “so this is all part of sparring.”

Gimrizh tries to spit the words out but she just ends up coughing up more blood.

Reus laughs at her before beckoning Yaina closer. “Unless you wanna tap in for her? I’m always up for two beat downs for the price of one.”

“Fine.”

“D - don’t - “ Gimrizh’s protests are ignored.

Despite Yaina’s care, Gimrizh can still barely breathe as her friend helps her lean against the sparring ring perimeter fence. At least she can stand on her own when Yaina removes her arm to stomp back into the ring. She rolls her sleeves up and grabs Gimrizh’s discarded practice blade.

“You wanted to go?” she demands, spitting on the ground in front of Reus.

He twirls his weapon. “Come on then. Hit me.”

Yaina rushes forward, swinging with unrestrained anger. Practice blades might not be lightsabers or even vibroswords, yet that does not make them toothless weapons. They can break bones easily enough, as Gimrizh has found multiple times over. They can raise welts onto the skin or cause concussions. While acolytes are encouraged to use their rage, they are specifically not supposed to go for the kill.

As awful as broken ribs and taunting are, Reus was obeying the rules. Insults aren’t deathblows.

He smacks Yaina’s blows aside, toying with her as she tries to get a hit in. As much as Gimrizh hates him, there’s no denying the simple fact that Reus is number one in their year’s rankings. A half dozen other students stand between Gimrizh and him.

And every single acolyte in their year stands between him and Yaina.

Their clashing blows draws Overseer Rihne, who is conveniently only now paying attention. He stands next to Gimrizh and completely ignores her, instead surveying the fight with his usual stern frown.

“Acolyte Yaina!” he orders, watching as Reus shoves her across the ring. “Use the force to enhance your body. If you cannot tap into that strength you will lose.”

Yaina blocks twice, stumbles back - her retaliatory slash is barely a smack compared to the strike Reus follows up with. The weight of it makes Yaina drop to one knee, panting with exertion, her free hand digging into the dirt before pushing herself up to jump away from his practice blade.

“Use the force, you foolish child!” Rihne smacks his hand against the railing, jarring Gimrizh’s ribs. “Are you not angry? Are you not afraid? Use that!”

The noise makes Yaina look up - Reus promptly takes advantage by striking her wrist and disarming her.

“If you do not use your hatred you will never amount to anything!”

Yaina backs away from Reus, her hands held up in fists instead of trying to retrieve her weapon.

“Choke him! Throw something! Use the damn force!”

Reus kicks Yaina across the training ring.

~*~

“This is what I want!” Yaina whispers excitedly, pointing at a sketch on a piece of flimsy, “Something like that, in black!”

Frowning, Gimrizh examines the drawing, “Um. You know these are going to be my tattoos, right? You’ve already got yours.”

“So?” Yaina pushes the paper over.

Almost automatically, Gimrizh corrects a few of Yaina’s lines. She doesn’t really know where the thoughts come from. She shouldn’t have any memories of the traditional Zabrak tattoos. But she just sort of knows where Yaina’s sketch needs to be tweaked, knows that some lines should be shorter or thicker, or moved an inch to the left. Sharpens away the square patterns into something sickle shaped and adds harsh cutting wings at the edges of the darkest blocks.

“Ohhh. That looks a lot better.” Yaina comments, looking at Gimrizh’s improved tattoo design.

“I…” Gimrizh pauses, thinking her words through carefully. “Why do all your designs for my tattoos look kind of like yours?”

Yaina’s normally green skin flushes to a dark turquoise tone. “Well… even though my tattoos are kind of permanent...”

“Yes I’m pretty sure that’s the point of tattoos.”

Gim. Anyway, I just kind of wanted us to match. You see this has a similar forehead pattern here, and there’s kind of the same thing under the eyes. Even though yours are going to look Zabrak and mine are Mirialan - I just thought… ”

“I like your design.”

“We’d match if you did it that way!” Yaina reminds her, “So then you’d look weird.”

“I’m confused.”

“Just accept that I’m always right.”

“...Yes Yaina, you’re infallible.”

“That’s what I thought.”

~*~

Gimrizh stares at the big fat zero that marrs Yaina’s results. Then she stares at the one above it. And the one above that.

Every test they've been given since Yaina arrived is laid out of her scoreboard, the Institute’s official dataprogram that they use to track test results, disciplinary warnings, and most importantly year and class rankings. Given how sensitive some of that information can be, most acolytes don't show their reports to anyone else. But Yaina has tucked Gimrizh under her wing and Gimrizh latches onto her with a deathly tight grip. Such information is not secret - not between the two of them.

Yaina is ranked dead last. Every test is a zero. Every combat assessment expresses severe disappointment. This is not just mediocrity, this is intentional sabotage.

“Someone must have sliced your scores,” Gimrizh protests. “Is it Reus? Irien?”

Yaina shakes her head, her dark green curtain of hair shimmering under the fluorescent light of their dormitory. “I've been failing myself. They can make me sit the tests but they can't make me write the answers.”

“And the combat?”

“I won't use the force for them.”

This doesn't make sense. Sub-humans can't fail like this. They just don't. Red Sith can flunk all they like without severe consequences, but sub-humans like them are sent to the slave camps if they don't shape up. Yaina has been here for years and hasn't passed a single examination.

She should be gone.

And she certainly should not still be placed in Class Aurek - she should have been kicked down to the lowest level class by now.

The other big fat zero is the number of times she's been sent to the Disciplinarian. Oh, there are private sessions with the overseers, but those are to encourage assimilation, rarely to dole out punishment. If Gimrizh failed even a single quiz on purpose, that'd be twenty lashes.

Yaina is more interested in skimming Gimrizh’s report. “You're number five in our year now? Wow, I didn't know you got bumped up a rank.”

“Ah…” Gimrizh tugs a hand through her long hair. “Yeah. I guess I had a good month, is all.”

How is Yaina still here?

~*~

The cold night wind of Korriban lazily nips at Gimrizh and Yaina’s fingers and toes. They’re sitting on Institute Five’s roof, staring up at the pitch black sky full of stars. A mug sits between them with only a few centimeters of rapidly cooling illicit caf remaining.

“Force hypersensitivity,” Yaina says softly.

Gimrizh has never heard of that before. She knows, obviously, what force sensitivity means, but she’s no clue what this is. “I don’t…”

“Force sensitivity, the usual kind, is based on a midichlorian count of over two thousand per cell,” Yaina recites clinically. “Sometimes - very very rarely - something goes wrong when a fetus is developing. The midichlorians are present in high enough numbers for force sensitivity but haven’t fully integrated into the body’s cells. As a result, using the force, even just connecting to it, hurts.”

Pity rears its ugly head, even though Gimrizh doesn’t want to pity her adopted sister. Everything they’re training to be revolves around the force. Sith is the cornerstone around which her identity revolves. From her earliest memories she can remember wanting nothing more than to become Sith, and that requires using the force. She can’t imagine having something so essential to her hurt like that.

“When did you find out?”

“I was three. I was playing with my older cousin - Thutrel - he’s probably a Jedi now. My parents knew I was force sensitive and they encouraged me to - oh, it was something so stupid, just picking up a lightpen. I screamed when I tried.”

Gimrizh flinches, both at the words at and the flatness in Yaina’s voice. There's a sad blankness in her face, as if she is too tired to even show pain and Gimrizh desperately wants to wipe it away. Emotions are a Sith’s lifeblood after all. She wants Yaina to feel, to be happy, to be passionate, and the worst part is she doesn't know how to reconcile that. How to bring the half of her that longs for Yaina to become Sith together with the half that knows the force will extinguish Yaina’s joy.

“Have you tried telling the overseers?” she asks hesitantly.

Yaina snorts. “Oh, they know. They don't care. Just like everyone else.”

“Everyone else?”

“I've been diagnosed since I was three and yet my parents were still going to send me to the Jedi Order. My aunt - Yulair - is the longest sitting member of the Jedi Council. They thought I and my cousin had that same potential.” At least Yaina does not sound proud of that fact, Gimrizh thinks. “I was told that the pain was a sign of the dark side corrupting me, that I needed to release it into the force. That a real Jedi does not allow themselves to feel pain.”

Even though Gimrizh is far from comfortable with casual touch, she slides her hand atop Yaina’s. “Are you still going to become Sith?”

Yaina shrugs. “Do I have a choice?”

“You could go into academic research?” Gimrizh suggests, her voice weak. “There's barely any force needed for that area of specialization.”

“They want me to fight. They always have. My aunt decimated Sith battalions all across Balmorra during the Empire’s expansion. They want that for themselves.”

“Maybe…” Gimrizh chews on her lower lip. “Maybe it will get better when you're older. In a few years the force might - “

Yaina spits onto the rooftop and says her most blasphemous statement yet. “Fuck the force.”

~*~

Irien slams his practice weapon against Gimrizh’s, again and again, pressing his advantage as her arms begin to tremble and shake.

Twenty feet over, Reus is giving Yaina a similar beat down, only faster. It’s a deliberate ploy by Overseer Rihne, well aware of the two boys’ longtime hatred of them. For Reus and Irien, their pride as red Sith is on the line. For Gimrizh, it’s just survival. Whatever strange forces keep Yaina from failing out of the Institute are not around to protect Gimrizh, and thus she must pick up her practice sword and prepare to have her bones broken, her skin bruised, and any remnants of her pride crushed into dust.

Gimrizh is currently dodging.

Years of combat have taught her to favor agility, compensating for her short stature and average physical strength with the acrobatic moves of Ataru form. Her usual tactic is dodge and evade Irien’s heavy movements, rushing in to attack with her vibroblade as swiftly as possible before ducking out of his reach again. It’s all she can do when up against Irien’s aggressive Juyo - a Sith standard. Another invisible blow - Gimrizh has never excelled at that form.

A hard overhead slash forces Gimrizh to drop to the ground and roll out of Irien’s way. She sweeps her blade at his legs, trying to unbalance him.

Before she can pull her blade back into a defensive position, Irien kicks her in the stomach, sending her skidding across the ground. The pain of impact takes her breath away, and she barely manages to get her blade up to guard her head from his next strike.

His sword smashes into hers, barely an inch away from the side of her head. The vibrations ring through her ears.

"Get up!" Irien demands, raising his blade for another attack.

Gimrizh leaps to her feet and whirls to the side as his vibroblade slices through the air where she had been standing only a moment ago. She flips her blade around in her hand and strikes at his unprotected ribs.

Success. He gasps and stumbles backwards, clutching his side where she stuck him.

With a furious roar, he leaps at her and resumes a fast paced series of ferocious strikes that leave her hard pressed to dodge. She manages to evade him only for a few hard won moments before he hits her in the chest.

When she falters, he hits her again, and then again, and again, his vibroblade leaving red gashes across her torso from the strength of his attacks.

The pain is burning, searing through her, too much to bear. She collapses onto the ground, gasping for breath and crying out as he kicks her.

“Stop it!” Yaina yells, abandoning her duel to put herself between Irien and Gimrizh. She slides into the fray, throwing her arms out protectively to get Irien to stop. “You’ve won, we get it! Just stop before you get her killed!”

Irien smacks Yaina aside. “Oh come on, I’m not gonna kill her. I’m just finishing the match.”

There’s a thud as Yaina hits the dirt and then Gimrizh is staring at Irien’s boots and the tip of his practice sword. Why can’t he just leave her alone? Why does he insist on making every second of combat practice a living hell for her? How would he like it if she kicked him into the dirt every day and then spat on his body? He’d hate it, he’d hate to be humiliated by her. Desire fills her with images of her stepping on his broken body, her cutting him down with her own gleaming vibroblade, her kicking him in the gut like he does to her.

“Get up, Horns,” he says in a sing-song voice.

It hurts, hurts, hurts. She’d burn through the pain in an instant and take a beating twice as worse if only to be given the extreme pleasure of punching him in the face. Her turn.

Fueled by hatred and raw unfiltered power she pushes herself up onto her feet. Makes a fist. And hits him across the face.

In the second of his shock at being struck barehanded, Gimrizh rips his blade from his hand and throws it away. She wants to feel his bones snap beneath her hands, crush the life from him, and dig her thumbs into his eyeballs. A vibroblade will only get in her way. That hit was so so good and she wants more.

She throws herself at him, the two of them rolling on the ground. He gets a right hook in before she claws at his face like a mad nexu. Both of them are screaming at each other, screaming their lungs out as they punch and kick and bite.

And then Irien kicks her in her already bruised chest and she goes down like a sack of bricks.

Irien scrambles to his feet and rips Reus’ blade from his friend’s hands. With a fiery war cry, he runs at her, blade back and ready to strike.

He doesn't make it.

Suddenly Gimrizh’s hands are at his throat - only that can’t be, because she’s still a full meter away and her hands are curling around empty space.

Rough choking coughs come out of Irien’s mouth as he flails his hands uselessly, trying to pry invisible hands away from his windpipe. Blood is pounding in her ears, burning a path of power through her body and out her hands, letting her experience every delicious second of this. Every futile twitch in Irien’s neck, every rasping breath he tries to take is felt beneath her fingers. It’s the best thing she’s ever felt in her entire life. Nothing exists outside of herself and her prey.

She can feel the power swirl around her, feel it pour into her unfettered. It brings strength enough to choke Irien and thick sweetness enough to cover her pains like a cloying scent covers up stench. And oh, it has been her this whole time, she’s been the one keeping this power out. Why she ever resisted this, she doesn’t know. Nothing is as good as this rush, nothing is this powerful.

Her hand shuts tightly closed and Irien falls to the ground.

With a gasping and shaking breath, that overwhelming feel of power fades, leaving Gimrizh trembling - Reus rushes over, dropping to the ground, shaking his friend desperately - Yaina has gotten to her feet and is calling Overseer Rihne over - it’s too late. Gimrizh could feel a light in the force wink out and for one shuddering moment she had reveled in it.

She still is.

~*~

“You didn’t have to break both his legs,” Yaina mutters as they walk back from Overseer Rihne’s office. “Just one would have been enough.”

Gimrizh rolls her eyes. She has no sympathy for Reus. She did at first and then she had shoved it down because that’s not what a real Sith would feel. It has gotten easier after the first time Reus seriously tried to kill her. It’s been a year since she murdered Irien and Reus has tried to return the favor ten times now. Today’s attempt was messy, brutal, and attracted more of the overseers’ attention than either of them would have liked.

“Both legs keeps him off his feet for longer,” she replies, still fuming. “I want him to really feel it.”

Yaina’s green eyes narrow and she grabs a fistful of Gimrizh’s uniform jacket, tugging her into a small, deserted hallway. “What is going on between you and Reus?”

“Nothing.”

“Don't bullshit me, Gim. You're my sister and I've known you for six years. You don't have a single tell I don't know. Are you fucking him?”

Gimrizh shoves Yaina away. “None of your business!”

A shocked look quickly faded from Yaina’s face, soon replaced with anger. “What, you like the fact that he pays attention to you? Who cares that he wants to make you suffer, right?”

“Shut. Up.”

“Do you really feel that shitty about not being a human or having fucking red skin?”

That stabs through Gimrizh’s hearts. She has nothing to say to that. It's true. She is letting Reus fuck her between murder attempts, and she is ashamed that she's a subspecies.

“Gim,” Yaina says softly. That blankness still hovers on the edges of her face, lingering in her eyes as she pleads. “He's going to really hurt you. I - I love you. Please don't make me watch you die.”

“I'm not going to die,” she snaps.

~*~

“Come on, Horns, you’ll like this.”

Gimrizh pauses in the middle of biting a painful hickey into Reus’s neck to glare at him. It’s hard to tell in the dim light of the supply closet, but there’s a smirk on his lips that only grows as he slips a hand under her shirt, sending a shiver running down her spine, part arousal and part fear. “We are going to get caught, you ass. Class starts in ten fucking minutes, and if I’m not there, the overseers are going to fucking kill me.”

Of course that doesn’t matter to him. He’s pureblood, the overseers are way more lenient with his kind than they are with hers. He’s still a bastard. He laughs. “We’re not going to need ten minutes.”

“That’s not reassuring, you fuck.”

His slap stings her cheek. That’s hardly surprising, she’d been expecting a hit, anticipating it even. She hates herself for wanting this, for wanting him to hurt her, for enjoying it - she hates that she deserves it. “Don’t be so fucking ungrateful. I’m trying to help you, you bitch. This’ll help with all the shit you get for being Zabrak,” he tells her, and damn if it doesn’t make her hearts flutter with something akin to hope. “Just turn around.”

“Reus, you tried to stab me two hours ago, why in the hells should I trust you?” His hands are already wrapped around her, tugging her around so that her back is pressed against his chest. Stars, she hates him. She should really stop this, this weird thing they have.

“We both know I hate the fact that the chick I’m fucking is a force-damned sub-species. This helps me too. Come on, Horns, give me a chance.”

“Fine. Ten minutes.”

She really needs to learn that she can’t trust that fucking smirk of his.

~*~

Gimrizh sits in a starchy white medical bed.

Machines attached to her veins beep periodically, a double beat of her hearts, the waving line that measures her brain activity. Her nails are too jagged and rough, catching on the weave of the fabric that covers her from the waist down. They've strapped her in here after the first time she tried to run. Overseer Rihne had stopped by, clicked his tongue in disapproval, and then left. It has filled Gimrizh with roiling guilt. This is time she could be training and instead she is wasting it.

The door slides open.

Gimrizh doesn't turn to look as Yaina sits down next to her.

A stiff awkwardness stretches between the two of them.

“Will they grow back?” Yaina asks eventually. Her hands are tight fists in her lap.

Gimrizh shrugs. “The medics don't know. They might but they will never be as long as they were before.”

Her forehead hurts. Enough pain medication to knock out a nexu runs through her bloodstream but she can still feel the pain, deep down in her bones. She feels off balance. There should be more weight on her forehead than there is. Instead there's just the cloying sensation of drugs and the press of bandages. She doesn’t know if she’s happy with this or not - or barring happy, if she can accept this.

This was what she wanted, wasn’t it?

“Does it still hurt?”

Yes. “No.”

Yaina reaches out. Her fingers stop a hairsbreadth above Gimrizh’s forehead, right next to one of the two horns that sit closer to the edges of her forehead. Those aren’t covered by bandages, not yet. “At least these are still long.”

Smack.

Gimrizh doesn’t realize she’s whacked Yaina’s hand aside until she feels the sting in her palm. “I don’t - just don’t. Please.”

There’s silence and then a short thud as Yaina drops a datapad next to her. “I brought the coursework you’ve missed.”

“Thank you.”

At least she won’t fall behind. A week in medbay could drop her down from first place in the year’s rankings, and that’s unacceptable. If she can’t hold her rank, then she can’t keep her place here secured. Her record has enough disciplinary strikes against her that she can’t afford to fall even the slightest bit behind. Whatever strange luck Yaina has does not bless Gimrizh as well. A single failure could be her last, and then she’ll never be Sith. She’s lucky that all she got for killing Irien was a month in the Inquisitor’s custody.

Yaina slowly kisses the top of her head. “Please get better soon, Gim. I miss having you in class. You’re the only sister I’ve got.”

“I know.”

The door slides shut and then Yaina’s gone, leaving Gimrizh alone in the medbay with nothing more than a datapad and her own thoughts.

She carefully brings a hand up to her face, delicately feeling out her forehead. She’s so used to having three heavy horns in the center of her forehead, and now her fingers pass over a flat expanse of bandage. They might grow back. They’ll never be as long as they were. Does she even want them to grow back? Or does she want the skin to scar over and the remnants of bone to lie flat, hiding evidence of her horns’ existence? Could that work on her other two horns as well?

Something hot and wet rolls down her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she whispers to an empty room. “I’m so sorry.”

~*~

"I can't stand this Gim," Yaina confesses.

Class has been letting out earlier and earlier this past year, so that the acolytes will have more time to study for their year eighteen aptitude tests, which are rapidly approaching. They're walking out on the surface on one of the old tombs at sunset, and thankfully, they’re far enough away from the Institute that there is no one and nothing around to hear Yaina’s near treasonous words.

“What?” Gimrizh asks sternly, “What is it that you can’t stand?”

Kicking a stone in her way, Yaina sighs and gives Gimrizh a look, “Everything. The Institute, I guess, if I have to chose the worst thing.”

Gimrizh stops walking, “You can’t say that.”

“I don't care.” Yaina mutters, staring off at the setting sun.

“Is this about your - your force problems again?”

“I won’t be Sith, Gim.”

Gimrizh stumbles backwards. “What? Of course you want to be Sith, everyone in the Institute wants to be Sith.”

Yaina just sighs again, a heavy breathy sigh that seems to slum her entire body. “Not me. They can’t make me.”

“Please,” Gimrizh grits out. It’s a word she hates using. She shouldn’t have to beg! Yaina should just know, like all the other acolytes do, that being Sith is the ultimate goal. “Everything will make sense after we take our tests next year.”

"Will it?”

“Yes, of course! We’ll advance, and then the overseers will give us more knowledge before we transfer to the Academy! They’ll tell us secrets about the force that very few know - Yaina, they’ll explain everything to you! Whatever issue you have with the force will become clear to you and you won’t have this… this problem anymore! One more year. Just… wait till after we’ve advanced."

“...”

“Do it for me, Yaina. Please.”

“Fine. One more year.”

“Thank you.” Gimrizh gives her friend one last look before turning away back towards the Institute and away from the burning sun. “It’s getting late.”

“I’ll be back later,” Yaina says quietly, “Head back without me.”

With a nod, Gimrizh walks back to the Institute, wishing that she could turn back the clock to before they’d ever come out here. She doesn’t know what she can do to make Yaina see. Gimrizh is so angry, all the time, that using the force comes as naturally as breathing. She can’t comprehend what it must be like to fight it, or to have it hurt.

Yaina will learn, she tells herself. They’ll advance and then Yaina’ll see why the force can’t be denied and why she strives to be Sith.

~*~

The year eighteen aptitude tests are a walk in the park compared to her year nine tests. The knowledge portion is easy, the force manipulation section makes her blood sing with power before she heads outside into the bright sun to fight. She knocks three overseers down with her vibroblade in the combat portion before Overseer Rihne tells her to get off the field and let the other acolytes in their class have a turn.

The next day, an overseer from the Academy visits Institute Five.

Rihne has her and Yaina meet him, the two best candidates that Institute Five can offer the Academy, even though they won’t be moved up for another three years, at least.

“This is Overseer Tremel,” Rihne tells them, as they stand straight backed and a side by side in his office, “He’s here to pick out acolytes from this year’s graduating class, but I suggested that he meet the two of you as well, while he’s here. Consider this is a preview of the rewards to come in a few years.”
Both of them bow to the unfamiliar Overseer.

It’s good to meet the two of you,” Tremel says. His eyes run across them carefully, like he’s appraising the goods before committing to a buying price, “It will be interesting to see what happens to you later on.”

~*~

An alarm sounds through the Institute.

It lasts for all of twenty seconds before someone shuts it off, but it is long enough to wake Gimrizh. She jolts up, throws the bedsheets off, and slams the dorm room light on. It’s two in the morning, what’s going -

The light doesn’t turn on.

Power outage? But the Institute has a backup generator. Is there some sort of complete system failure? That can’t be possible, they’ve never had any sort of power failure in the entirety of Gimrizh’s time here. Furthermore, she has no idea what sort of natural disaster would cause a power outage - they’ve weathered sandstorms, hurricanes, lightning, everything with no incident like this before.

“Yaina,” she snaps, reaching into their closet by memory and pulling a cloak out. “Get up.”

She tugs her cloak on, letting the warmth envelop her. Korriban nights are cold, and if the lights are down, the heat will fade shortly as well. The alarm is off, so theoretically the situation is being dealt with, but getting the generators back on line will take time and she’d rather not risk freezing in the meanwhile.

“Yaina?”

Silence.

It’s impossible to see in this pitch darkness, but Gimrizh can sense nothing when she reaches out in the force. She gives Yaina’s bunk a few cautious pats. Nothing.

Shit.

She unlocks the door and slides it open as quietly as she can, looking both ways before stepping out into the dormitory corridor. Then she hurries down the hall as fast as she can without making any noise.

Yaina is not one for waking up in the middle of the night. If she has nightmares, she is loud, crying and tossing about in bed, and she does not leave when she has them. She doesn’t sleep walk either. Gimrizh doesn’t know where her sister went and the alarm is worrying. Yaina wouldn’t have done anything, would she have?

Strangely enough, there aren’t any guards patrolling the dormitory halls, but there is at least a double shift watching the entrances and exits. They don't care about students wandering around after dark so long as they don’t leave. Interesting.

Gimrizh comes to a stop in front of an office door - she can hear talking inside.

She shoves her presence in the force down and stills her breathing. At least whoever is talking is loud enough that she can eavesdrop safely.

“... stole an overseer’s lightsaber.” That voice she doesn’t know, but the next one to talk is Overseer Rihne.

“What was she thinking? She can’t get off Korriban, not without a ship. Have you commed the nearest supply depot?”

“Yes. They’ve seen nothing on their rader. We think she headed in a different direction.”

“Damn it.” There’s a thud. Rihne must have hit something. “We can’t afford to lose her. She’s too important.”

“Should I report it?”

“Not yet. I’d rather not have my head on a chopping block. Send out troops to search and put out an alert. Hopefully we can get her back before anyone on Dromund Kaas even knows she’s missing. Or before the Republic finds out she’s still alive.” Gimrizh’s hearts stop even as Rihne continues, “That idiot girl is more of a liability than she’s worth.”

The second voice asks, “Should we send out overseers with the search party?”

“No. Only myself and the Institute head know who she is and we’d like to keep it that way. We can keep the guards in line, but it will get messy to have every overseer know who she is.”

“She is armed - “

“Have you seen her scores? She couldn’t fight her way out of a blanket. Honestly, she’s a waste of space. I don’t understand why she’s so important, regardless of who her aunt is. She’d be better off as a hostage.” Rihne pauses.

Cold sweat prickles Gimrizh’s skin as she tries to shove down her panic attack. This is - they’re talking about Yaina. They can’t not be. What has her sister done.

The door slides open and then Overseer Rihne is grabbing a fistful of Gimrizh’s shirt.

Acolyte Gimrizh,” he snarls, tossing her into his office with the other guard. “Why am I not surprised. Are you in on this?”

She gets to her feet - he sweeps his leg out and kicks her down again.

“On your knees,” he orders. And then repeats, “Are you in on this?”

She shakes her head furiously. “No, sir, no I don’t know anything about this - I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to - I just didn’t - “

“Shut up.”

The guard takes out a blaster. “Should I…?”

Rihne holds up a hand. Gimrizh is trembling as she kneels in front of him, her legs a shaking mess of nervousness and panic. “You are close to Acolyte Yaina, are you not?” he asks her. “I know the two of you share a dorm.”

“I - uh - yes, sir.”

“Acolyte Yaina is a traitor to the Sith Order and the Empire. An hour ago she stole an overseer’s lightsaber and ran off. We are attempting to track her, but she was clever enough or lucky enough to cause a complete system failure before fleeing the Institute and running off towards the old academy’s ruins.”

The truth hits her like a kick to the stomach. Of course Yaina fled.

“Do you know where she’d go?”

They knew a dozen hiding places in the old ruins, and a dozen more locations in the desert beyond. She and Yaina often spent hours treating the less dangerous ruins and tombs as their own personal playgrounds.

Gimrizh nods.

“I understand that you may wish to spare her. But know this - she is a traitor. She has betrayed everything that the Sith stand for, and by abandoning you, she has betrayed you as well. Whatever friendship you thought the two of you had, she has broken.”

Everything that Gimrizh is lies with the Sith, on Korriban. If Yaina’s against that, then she’s against her too. Yaina has chosen to draw that line, not her. Yaina knows how tied to the Sith she is, Yaina knows and still decided that it didn’t matter. That she doesn’t matter. After everything. And Yaina had just thrown her away…?

Rihne holds out his lightsaber and she takes it.

She takes a speeder from the Institute’s landing bay.

The night is dark and treacherous, especially in the harsh wilds of Korriban. But none of that matters. Yaina’s easy to follow. Her tracks are obvious to Gimrizh, who’s spent years following her friend around out here. A rock shifted out of the way is a neon sign in her eyes, and the footprints that have already vanished in the shifting sands aren’t needed. Gimrizh can feel her sister in the force. A normal person is almost invisible to her outside of the closest of ranges, a force sensitive burns a tad brighter, but even with Gimrizh’s shit sensing skills, Yaina is a fucking star.

Anger pulses through her like a smoldering fire, ready to burn out of her body at a moment’s notice. It’s like pressure building up in her chest and she’ll explode if she doesn’t let it burn everything around her to ash and dust.

Yaina betrayed the Sith.

Gimrizh is going to be Sith.

Yaina betrayed her.

The lightsaber hangs heavily from her belt. She slams the accelerator forward as she skids the speeder across the top of a tomb.

On the horizon, a swiftly moving figure rushes into view. Gimrizh stand in her seat and squints her eyes, trying to visually confirm what her hearts tell her.

She jams the speeder ignition and leaps from the driver seat, landing lightly on her feet. The speeder skids off the edge of the tomb and falls into the chasm ahead before crashing into ruin a thousand feet below them.

And Yaina, only few meters ahead of her, stops running.

“Why are you here?” she asks, slowly turning around. A lightsaber hangs from her belt, glinting in the light of Korriban’s three currently visible moons.

Gimrizh’s teeth grind together as her eyes narrow. “You betrayed the Sith Order. You sabotaged our Institute - you stole a lightsaber - you’re - you’re a traitor!”

“Okay.”

“What do you mean ‘okay’? This is not okay!”

Yaina gives the lightsaber on Gimrizh’s belt a pointed look. “Did you steal that too? Or did the overseers send you to come after me?” She draws her green outsider eyes up until she’s staring straight at Gimrizh. “Or are you going to kill me?”

Even if she wanted to, Gimrizh couldn’t. “Turn yourself in. If you return to the Institute willingly, I’m sure the overseers will go easy on you. They always have before, right? I’ll be by your side every step of the way, even if they lock you up. I won’t kill you, but they might. Being locked up is better than being dead. There’s nothing worse than being dead - and that’s what they’ll have to do to you if you don’t come back to the Institute with me! I don’t want to kill you, Yaina! I love you!”

“I’m not going to fight you,” Yaina says flatly.

“Then come back.”

“No. I can’t. I can never go back to that place, I will never be Sith.”

Gimrizh’s hand curls, the tan skin around her knuckles going pale as she wraps her fingers tightly around the lightsaber hilt, “You’re strong in the force, I know you have this stupid issue about using the power that you have but-”

“I will never use the force again,” Yaina tells her firmly, her words as unbendable as durasteel. “I won’t let it destroy me.”

Her brow furrows as she stares at Yaina in confusion. “That’s absurd! The dark side - the force - isn’t your enemy - it’s the most powerful ally there is! It’s stronger than anything! Look at what it’s done for me!”

“Oh Gim, I am.”

Gimrizh flinches. “Are you jealous?”

“I don’t care about any of that. I never have. I care about you. The Sith Order, the Empire - they don’t give a damn about you. They want you to become a ruined, beaten-down, vicious version of yourself so that they can throw you on the battlefield and watch you cut down innocent people without remorse.”

Gimrizh laughs, a harsh rough laugh that makes a mockery of everything that’s been said, “You’re sounding like a Jedi. Like one of those Republic fools. You think they have the right idea of things, do you?”

“They’re not right either. The Republic and Jedi aren’t right.”

“Then what’s the answer?” Gimrizh demands, spreading her arms out, “What solution does the great and wise Yaina have to enlighten us with?”

“I don’t have an answer!” Yaina cries at her, “I don’t have a plan. I never did. There's no one waiting to take me off world, no ship I'm running to. I just- I just want it all to be over. All my life I’ve been told to be a Jedi - be a Sith - go fight someone else’s war in the name the force. ‘The force has a plan for me’ - well I don’t care what that plan is. Anywhere I could go, they’ll just find me and make me use the force and I’m done. I never want to touch the force again. I just want this to end.”

So many years, and yet Gimrizh still doesn’t understand her sister. “But they could kill you.”

“No. They won’t.”

And then Yaina reaches for her lightsaber.

Before Gimrizh can so much as get ready to draw in retaliation, Yaina’s pressing the hilt under her own jaw and oh stars please no -

Staring straight at her, green locking with yellow, Yaina switches her saber on.

~*~

Tap. Tap.

A blank, blackened face stares out at Gimrizh from the mirror.

Her hair, her long beautiful hair decorates the bathroom floor and what remains on her head is short, choppy, inelegant. Occasionally a few drops of her blood will roll down her face and drip into the sink, mixing with the black ink in the basin. An old, crumpled sheet of flimsi is taped to the mirror. Containers of ink and a series of needles litter the countertop.

She brings the needle up to her eyelid.

Tap. Tap.

~*~

“This has been purged from your file,” Tremel explains as he leads Gimrizh towards a landspeeder. A bag containing everything she owns is dropped into the back seat. “You will not speak to anyone about Yaina Rineth. You didn’t know her very well. You weren’t close.” He pauses to shoot a glare at Institute Five. “I don’t know what was going on with that girl here, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Rihne’s head is going on the chopping block any day now, from what I hear.”

Good.

Tremel holds open the door for her. “Get in.”

She does so. “Where are we going?”

“A private training facility near the central Academy. You’re twenty - if you join the Academy at twenty one, that’ll still put you far ahead of your class. And it’ll get you there in time to be apprenticed to a Darth. That gives you one year to get you up to snuff.”

“I can’t become an apprentice in a year.”

“If you do as I tell you, you will. Don’t you want to be Sith?”

~*~

Chapter Text

~*~

Dromund Kaas is the same as Gimrizh remembers it to be.

The rain lightly drizzles down, a constant patter upon the streets, a backdrop of white noise that paints this planet. The skies are a rich and heavy grey, fueling the downpour. Her heavy boots splash in puddles as she makes her way to the Sith Sanctum. Thin rivulets of water run down the sides of the street and down into drainpipes, going miles and miles down in the bottom on Kaas City. The entirety of the city has a complex drainage system to prevent any flooding from the unending rain, using rainwater for power, engineering, even recycled for drinking water. It’s a testament for what the Empire can do. Nothing like this exists on Coruscant. She doubts their senate could put their heads together long enough to agree on such a thing.

Dromund Kaas is It’s always cold and damp, even when it isn’t raining, and bursts of sunshine are rare. It should be bleak and dismal but it’s not. It’s the opposite of Korriban. Gimrizh feels as though she and this planet have an understanding in that sense, she may never love this place like she loves the sheer beauty of Alderaan, but she does love that it is nothing like Korriban.

“How are you enjoying your time planetside?” Draahg asks, pleasant company as usual.

She's grateful that they're reporting to Baras together. Dealing with her master alone is never an enjoyable experience, and there's rather a lot to discuss now that they've captured Jaesa Willsaam. Draahg’s seniority here is a welcome shield.

“I'm glad to have a shower with actual water,” she replies.

They returned the Harrower to it’s station in the fleet last night, after which Gimrizh and her crew had touched down in Kaas City with Horizon. She'd had time to crawl back to her assigned apartment and pass out for five hours before being summoned to report. Her master is demanding. Maybe one day she won't be running on caf and panic, but not anytime soon.

Draahg laughs. “Me too. I always hate that part of being space bound.”

They scan their ID cards at Baras’s office, on of the many sets of chambers in the massive Sith Sanctum. As a lord, she thinks Draahg technically has an office here, but it’s more of a mailbox with his name on it than anything like the shadowed corridors and blank office doors Baras has managed to accumulate. Their master is nothing if not well versed in how a little theatrics can go a long way.

They step into Baras’s central office and both immediately bow to their master.

“Apprentice,” he says with a nod. “Lord Draahg. Congratulations on your most recent catch.”

“Thank you, master,” they say in one voice.

A dozen hypothetical debriefings have played through Gimrizh’s mind in the past few hours and she is ready for whatever questions he might ask. And then he asks none of them.

“Shall we discuss your next assignment?” Baras continues. “My master, Darth Vengean, has discovered the location of a very important Republic military figure. General Karastace Gonn. A particular thorn in our side during the war.”

Gimrizh has heard that name before. A short glance at Draahg confirms that he has as well. Most of the figures that Baras seems to especially dislike tend to run in a field that counters his spy network, as Nomen Karr did. Gonn doesn’t. That general must be Vengean’s enemy, not Baras’s. Interesting then that her master is the one handling Gonn’s removal. Is this a ploy on her master’s behalf to gain favor?

“General Gonn operates from the shadows,” Baras explains. “A phantom just in the right place at the right time that prevented a number of key fringe systems from falling to us. After years without a hint of his whereabouts, I’ve learned that he’s meeting on Klatooine with traitorous Imperial agents. It cannot continue. You will go there and you will kill him.”

Thus weakening many of the contested planets dotting the fringe systems. The Empire and the Republic have never really stopped fighting for those planets but it has calmed down since the Treaty. This will end that. Gimrizh connects the dots. Vengean runs the Sphere of Military Offence - he’ll be perfectly poised to move as soon as Gonn’s influence dies. One, at the bare minimum, of the fringe planets will swing into the Empire’s pocket.

How do they deny their hand in this? How can Baras give the order to assassinate Gonn without having the Treaty fall apart around them?

He can’t. Stars no.

Of course she had never assumed that the treaty would last a significant amount of time, everyone in the galaxy knows it has only ever been a temporary armistice. But krething hells, it had only lasted just under eleven years. That’s no time at all. Is the Empire strong enough to go back to war so soon? The Empire has prospered without the drain on resources caused by war. There's a thousand reasons not to tear up the Treaty and she has no doubt that Baras has a counter to every single one.

“Does the task give you pause, master?”

“The Emperor signed the Treaty for a reason, but no, apprentice. I see it as a great opportunity,” Baras tells her.

“Has Vengean sanctioned this?” Draahg asks.

“Not yet. We cannot risk letting word of our actions get out until Gonn is dead. After the two of you carry out your task, Vengean will issue official pardons. The story will be that two unnamed Sith stumbled across his operations while tracking Imperial traitors. Gonn got in the way of an internal Imperial affair and died defending his traitorous agents.” Baras clasps his hands behind his back. “Neither of you knew who he was until after he died.”

Draahg slowly nods. “Will we try to contest the Treaty with that angle? Argue that we didn’t really break it if it was done in self defense or some such nonsense?”

“As much as we can - it certainly will bog the Republic down in procedure while we begin our early strike.”

“Clever.” Draahg sweeps into another bow. “I’ll send the message to Exalted Storm and prepare the crew for hyperspace. We’ll be ready to depart for Hutt space as soon as you give the word.”

Gimrizh forces her whirling thoughts to shut up in Baras’s presence and agrees, “I’ll get my crew ready.”

“No need,” Baras replies immediately. “I’m certain that you and Draahg can handle this on your own.”

“... Yes, my master.”

They’re dismissed.

Outside their master’s offices, Draahg hands her a scrap of flimsi with a scrawled set of code on it. “That’ll get you on board Exalted Storm without me around to clear you.”

The paper trembles in her hand. She covers it up with a formal bow. He is still her superior after all. “Thank you. I suppose we’ll be departing shortly? Baras’s command didn’t include a time frame, but we have to assume that our target will not remain on Klatooine for long. Our timing will be crucial.”

“We’ll depart tomorrow,” he decides. Shit, there goes any possible time for her to prepare. “I’ll see you aboard Exalted Storm then.”

He waves over his shoulder as he saunters toward his speeder. Gets in. Flies away.

Alone, Gimrizh’s shoulders are shaking.

Normally she would enjoy the opportunity to paw through the data stored in the massive Sith library, or examine the new lightsaber prototypes, but today is not a normal day and any of those amusements seem so trivial now. Even the comforting tides of the dark side here fall flat on her today.

She’s about to start a war. Not just any war, but the war. A sudden break to the treaty means Imperial citizens on contested planets will die. She remembers what the last war did to the Institutes - graduation dates were pushed forward, sending younger and younger acolytes out into the field. It’s times like this where she finds it easy to ignore all the progress that Baras has brought to the Empire and simply hate him for his boundless ambition and utter lack of empathy.

She’s so distracted that when she steps out into the rain and sends for a taxi, she almost punches in the spaceport as her destination before remembering that it would be pointless. She did, after all, give her crew twenty-four hours of leave once they touched down in Kaas City, and no one will be there at the Horizon. That shouldn’t bother her. The idea of an empty ship, of no one there to simply be around, shouldn’t be that unsettling to her.

But it is.

Her fingers tap aimlessly on the destination input terminal, a sharp beat that increases rapidly in speed as she tries to think of where she could possibly go. Technically, it would make sense for her to return to what is, on paper, her home - an apartment in Kaas City that was assigned to her when she became an apprentice. But the only time she’s spent there has been to sleep, shower, or store spare tech. It’s unfurnished. Bare. And empty.

She doesn’t do this, doesn’t seek out contact. She isn’t some clingy, emotional chit, for star’s sake, she’s a Sith. Violent, brutal, murdering Sith. Not someone who needs people to comfort her like a damn child.

Maybe she could find Vette.  

The Twi’lek often has a knack for emotional rubbish, maybe she could find her and not even talk, just sit in her company. But no, she doesn’t have any idea where Vette is. Vette can keep a low profile when she wants to and Gimrizh knows she won’t have a whole lot of luck trying to hunt down Vette. Theoretically she could try and sense where Vette is, but she’s always been pretty shit at sensing and Kaas City is just such a massive place. That’d be a dead end.

But… Quinn used to live in Kaas City.

His personnel file lists his place of birth as being in the city and she knows he went to school on Dromund Kaas. Maybe he has a home here that he went back to. Despite spending nearly all her waking hours on the same ship as him, she keeps finding that she knows less and less about who he is.

Following this peculiar whim, she pulls out her own datapad and connects to the holonet. It’s a matter of moments for her to access the Imperial Census Bureau. One sweep of her ID card is enough to grant her authorization to view Quinn’s files. Name and rank are the first to show up on her screen and then the entirely of his file trickles through the slow holonet connection.  She has access to his mission history as well, although she doesn’t peek. But there is a listed address, and that’s all she’s looking for.

It’s an apartment in one of the city’s many military housing complexes. Without thinking over this absurdly stupid plan more carefully, she punches the address into the taxi terminal and waits as a speeder and a pilot droid pull up to take her to her destination.

She gets in the speeder before she can regret it and it zips off through the city’s skyline.

It doesn’t take long for the taxi to drop her off at the landing pad of one of Kaas City’s massive spacescrapers. Thousands of them are organized into neat little districts.

She’s so far down from the top of the city that not much rain gets on her in the few minutes it takes for her to pay the taxi and head inside. She double checks the address on her datapad and then gets out. She steps into the small combined garage and entry space attached to this apartment’s landing pad. There’s what looks like a scrap heap project that doesn’t fit her mental image of Quinn at all.

When she puts her first foot on the garage floor she has a brief moment where she thinks that it would probably be best for her to turn around right now and head back to the ship and just be alone damn it, but then she’s standing in front of the correct door and pressing the door chime and it’s too late.

She waits a solid five minutes with no response before nervously pressing the button again.

Nothing.

Shit, what is she doing? This is stupid - this is a waste of her time, this address probably hasn’t been updated in years and someone else probably lives there now and it’s probably a good thing they aren’t answering the door because that would be so embarrassing -

The rumble of an engine cuts through the air.

She whirls around to see the sleekest, fastest, sexiest black speeder bike she’s ever laid eyes on pull into the garage.

The engine noise is a smooth purr, the type of sound only the best bikes have. Even the crashing stop is perfectly controlled, without a single groan of protest from the brakes - there’s no need for drag flaps, just a set of reverse thrusters. She hasn’t seen a build like that since last year’s Roche models made it into Racer Monthly, but the body is nothing like a typical Roche bike at all, it’s more of a swoop where Roche sticks firmly in speeder bike territory. And the engine sounds nothing like a Roche engine either, but it also doesn’t have the sheer roaring power of a Lhosan.

The rider parks the bike and hops off.

When he tugs his helmet off, it reveals a mop of grey-brown hair and a sunshine grin. He tucks his helmet under his arm. “Hey there!”

She awkwardly takes a few steps towards the bike. “Hi.”

“Can I help you?”

“I - uh - I think have the wrong address, but can I take a look at that bike?”

He steps aside and waves her forward. “Sure.”

A thrum of excitement covers up her anxiety as she kneels by the bike. She almost whimpers at the sight of the black synthleather coverings on the seat. It’s as though someone took her dream bike and miracled it into existence. She runs her hand over the glossy surface. “An older model Aratech Lancer? But those don’t come in black - gorgeous paint job, by the way. What’s the engine? It’s not a Lhosan, is it? It’s so smooth sounding -” she gasps, “Is it a GSI EMP- Explorer?”

“Spot on.” He whistles. “You got all that from the engine noise?”

“It’s a very distinctive sound,” she says defensively. “Besides, a lot of the smaller engines couldn’t handle the reverse thrusters that have been added on. I can’t believe you managed to fit fucking reverse thrusters onto the Lancer’s model. That’s some ridiculously precise work. Where’d you get them?”

“I think they’re repurposed from a landspeeder, actually. You a pilot?”

She shrugs. “Well no. I’ve been informed I’m a poor pilot. I’m just an enthusiast.”

He arches an eyebrow in a somehow very familiar manner. “For just an enthusiast, you really know your stuff.”

“I just grew up reading every pilfered swoop magazine I could get my hands on- you made this.”

A cheery, open laugh tumbles from behind his grin. “Oh, this isn’t my bike.”

“Who’s is it?”

“My brother’s.” He leans in and winks. “I’m not allowed to fly it.”

She claps her hand over her mouth to cover the undignified snort of laughter. Then she coughs to clear her throat. “I hate to ask, and I really don’t mean to be rude but - your brother wouldn’t be open to selling, would he? Or - maybe not selling this one, but I could pay him to make a new one for me, or something similar - I mean this is honestly stunning work and it isn’t as though I’m in one place often enough to shop at actual shops.”

“Well…” He taps his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t think that’ll work out. He made this one eleven years ago and hasn’t flown it in the past ten.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to be a bother.”

He waves her off. “Nah. If it were me , I’d give you a different answer but he’s…” He draws himself up into a mockery of a parade ground stance and turns his voice into a stern, sharp tone that doesn’t fit him at all. “‘I am not a mechanic, nor can money sway me towards that field. My time is far better spent furthering the glory of the Empire. Blah-blah, I’m a workaholic, blah-blah.’ Or something like that.” He clears his throat.

She’s an idiot.

Now that she’s looking, she can see some similarities, the same nose and mouth, the same pale blue eyes. This man is lighter haired and lanky, more scruffy looking, but it’s not like there’s no resemblance.

“You - you’re Lucian.”

“The one and the only,” he agrees. “I guess this wasn’t a wrong address after all? Although, I have to say I’m not sure what a hot alien chick would want with little ol’ me.”

Hot alien - She decides to ignore that. “I’m actually here for Quinn, er - not you Quinn - I suppose you probably have the same name but - “

“Mal,” he helpfully fills in. “You’re here for Mal. Wow, my impressions must be good.”

She sighs in relief. “Yes. I can leave if - “

He waves her concerns off with a casual flick of his hand. “Nah, come on in.”

A password is punched into the door panel and he steps inside, letting her nervously step into the apartment.

Despite her anxiousness, she follows Lucian into the foyer anyways, because running away now would be pure and simple cowardice and she’s kind of stuck. It’s actually a very nice apartment, she thinks. It’s built with the same roots in standard Imperial architecture as the rest of the city, but there’s furniture and a few sparse decorations that make it feel personal and lived in. The place is also meticulously clean and organized, which for some reason reassures her. Definitely the sort of place she could see Quinn living in.

“Let me take you into the kitchen,” Lucian says, steering her down a hall, “Mal ran out for an errand or something, but dinner’s in the gasser, so I’m supposed to be watching and making sure it doesn’t burn. I was just out for a brief joy ride to pick up some Kaasi spiced pears - can’t get those on Balmorra. Feel free to stay and eat, if you want.”

“Oh - I don’t want to intrude - “

“You’re not.” Lucian steers her into the next room, the kitchen.

She’d say it’s impressive, but the only other kitchens that she’s ever been have been the one on Horizon and the massive cafeteria back in the Institute. Here and there are large pans hanging on the walls, a couple of racks filled with tiny jars of she doesn’t know what, spices maybe. There’s a shiny stone counter with neatly organized transparisteel jars of utensils. A large gasser sits with a heavy tray inside, emitting heat into the room.

This is ridiculously surreal.

“Have you ever had Nabooian braised nerf?” Lucian asks her, gently pushing her towards a seat at the counter. “Nabooian food is objectively the best, even though people say Corellian trumps all other cuisine, they’re wrong. Nabooian food is just lighter and they do something with more spices, Corellian is so heavy. What do you think?”

It’s a ploy to try and get her to loosen up, but it’s sort of working. “I have no idea,” she answers honestly. “I’ve never had either. I’ve spent my life mostly eating ration bars and protein packs.”

He fakes over the top outrage. “That is no way to live.”

“Life on a starship,” she corrects.

He leans on the counter across from her. “Really? How long was your last deployment?”

Oh. She left her lightsabers back on the ship. He has no idea that she’s a Sith. The idea is somewhat refreshing, actually. “A while,” she says vaguely, “Do you know when Quinn will be back?”

Lucian shrugs. “Nah. Soon, I guess. He’d never let himself burn dinner, so, there’s that. If you need to leave a message for him, I can do that as well.”

As if she could just pass on the message of ‘oh hey, we’re about to go start a war’. “No,” she quickly replies, “Thank you, but I need to speak with him in person. I understand if you wish for me to wait outside - ”

“Please, I’d be a shit brother if I kicked his girlfriend out on the streets,” he disagrees.

She chokes on air. “I’m - no - that’s not - ”

Lucian bursts into laughter, “Sorry, I’m not trying to be mean. Bad joke, I promise.” He grabs a couple of tumblers from the kitchen and fills them up with water. He slides one across the countertop to her. “I get it - strictly professional. That’s more Mal’s type anyway.”

She should not be asking this question. She does anyway. “He has a type?”

“I’m not saying anything,” he says mischievously, “but all his past girlfriends have been med students, back when he was in school. I said nothing,” he gives her an examining look, “I’m guessing you’re not a medic?”

“I’m no medic,” she tells him. “And you’re a pilot, correct? Do you fly anything with a bigger engine than an ISF?”

He grins. “I can fly just about anything. If you know Mal, you know he’s a great pilot, but I’m better. We mostly get ISFs, cause they’re cheap and got great maneuverability, don’t let that fool you though. I’ve been up in most kinds of ships, freighters, cruisers, you name it. I’ve even professionally flown a fair bit of in-atmo stuff too, sky-hoppers, mostly.”

“But mostly ISFs,” she confirms.

“Mostly ISFs,” Lucian agrees with a nod. “They’re good for what we use ‘em for but I’d sell my soul for something with a damn hyperdrive,” he briefly frowns at her before the smile returns to his face, “You sure you’re not a pilot?”

She laughs. “I’m sure.”

“Huh,” he leans back against the conservator and the assessing look makes its comeback. She can see the resemblance, that same critical eye that picks apart details. The difference is that Quinn can read her without being so obvious. “So…” Lucian tries, mulling over his words carefully, “You’re not a pilot, and you’re not a medic, but you know Malavai? What, did you work for him back when he was assigned to Balmorra?”

“Something like that,” she says noncommittally, “We met on Balmorra, just before his promotion.”

Lucian frowns into his cup, “Do you know anything about that?” he asks, “Mal’s promotion, I mean. I know you probably don’t know anything, but it seemed kind of strange to me.”

She does a double take. “Strange?”

“Well…” he thinks it over, “Mal was stuck being a lieutenant for years, when any decent commanding officer would have realized that he deserved a promotion a long time ago. I always figured that there was someone high up out to get him. So I don’t know why someone finally decided to give him a promotion out of the blue.”

If Quinn doesn’t want his brother knowing anything more about the work he’s done for Baras, then she’s not going to go behind his back. He must have a good reason for keeping Lucian in the dark, it’s not her place to question that. Besides, she can understand not wanting anyone else to get wrapped up in Baras’s web of lies and deception. “It was a bit fast,” she admits, “But I think it was a long time coming. Quinn is an exceptional officer. He more than deserved this promotion.”

Lucian doesn’t quite seem to buy that. “He won’t tell me what he’s doing now, you know? Just that he’s working for some Sith on a ship.”

“Much of what the Sith do is classified,” she says. She doesn’t want to lie to him, but she wants to know what he thinks. Without him having to censor his words because she’s in a higher position than him. That’s what she wishes Quinn would do. Tell her what he thinks without hiding behind professionalism and rigid military structure.

“Fair enough,” Lucian agrees. “I just worry, you know? I worry about whatever crazy classified shit he gets up to and he worries about me getting my ass blown out of the sky.”

That’s what siblings do. “I know the feeling,” she says slowly, “I… had a sister. I worried about her too.”

“Siblings,” he comments with a dramatic roll of his eyes. “Always getting into trouble. At least I used to worry about my brother being stuck in a dead-end station on Balmorra. Now, I’m worried if some psycho Sith gets pissed off and sticks him with a lightsaber.”

There’s no way he would be saying any of this if he knew who she is. “Right.”

He goes back to playing the guess who she is game. He has good instincts, she’ll give him that, “So. If you’re not a pilot, or a medic, and you worked for Malavai on Balmorra and now you’re in Kaas City running messages…” he grins at her, “Ensign. You’re totally an ensign.”

A familiar signature enters her sensory range like a footprint made in the sand. “Quinn’s back,” she says, turning towards the foyer.

They can hear the sound of the front door sliding open and footsteps. Lucian ducks his head around the corner.

“Hey Mal!” he calls out, “There’s a hot alien chick here to see you!”

She briefly dies of complete mortification.

There’s a brief clatter one room over and then she can hear Quinn’s voice. “What are you-” he steps into the room and sees her. There’s a moment of complete shock and then his face turns red. “My lord. I…”

It’s a good thing that he isn’t carrying anything, because she thinks he would drop it in surprise. Hells, this is the first time she’s ever seen Quinn out of uniform. There’s not much of a difference actually, he’s still wearing grey and black, but the neatly pressed military uniform is replaced with slacks and a long sleeved shirt. It’s a nice change, actually, she rather likes the difference. He looks more casual, although the effect is a bit ruined by how stiff and tense her unexpected presence makes him.

“I apologize for showing up unannounced,” she says honestly - this has been a very spur of the moment sort of dumb idea, “I didn’t mean to intrude. I just came to tell you what our new orders are, and -” she takes a deep breath. “I apologize for the interruption.”

“There’s no interruption, my lord,” Quinn says hastily, “I assure you.”

Lucian looks between the two of them and his jaw falls open. “Shit.”

Quinn turns on his brother and sighs, rubbing his temples. “I sincerely hope that you didn’t say anything distasteful to Lord Gimrizh?”

Lucian is looking at her like she’s about to try and murder him. “I should not have said some of that… ” he whispers in shock, “Is this how I die?”

Gimrizh brushes it off. “Don’t worry. I’m more likely to express my disapproval through scathing commentary, not lightsaber.”

Lucian blinks twice and then bursts into laughter. “I like you!” he says at last. “Mal, you’ve got good taste in Sith, I approve.”

“Lucian!” Quinn sharply reprimands, his face red.

“No, no, it’s fine,” she says, “Really Quinn, I don’t mind.”

And she doesn’t. She finds that she enjoys Lucian’s company and it was quite nice to speak to someone who wasn’t aware that she is Sith. So often she feels as though people censor themselves when around her, simply to avoid the possibility of her strangling them out of annoyance. To be fair, she completely understands why people act like that. There are many Sith, including Baras, who would do that, would thoughtlessly kill an underling because they disagreed with them. She dislikes that habit, but it’s not her place to question.

“Regardless,” Quinn tries, seeming very nervous, “Please accept my sincere apologies, my lord.”

“Honestly, it’s fine. I just came to inform you that -”

Lucian swears, his eyes wide. “Stars. I cannot hear this. If it’s Sith business, it’s way above my rank.”

Of course, she’s an idiot. If Quinn doesn’t tell his brother anything, not about his promotion, or his work, then there must be a damn good reason. And while she may not be as well versed in what ranks have which level of security clearance, she knows her current mission is being kept under tight wraps. She’s just a damn idiot who is too panicked about the whole thing to remember for two seconds straight.

“I apologize,” she says, standing up from her seat. “Captain, I’ll send you and Vette a missive tomorrow. Until then.”

The two brothers glance at each other as she makes her way out.

She reaches the front door before Quinn stops her.

“My lord,” he says, speaking in a low voice so that Lucian in the kitchen cannot hear. “I wish to apologize-”

“There’s no need,” she cuts him off, “I shouldn’t have interrupted. And I should have known better than to mention our work in front of your brother when I knew that he’s uninvolved. I won't intrude any longer.”

“We have a moment now, if you wish to pass on that message,” he replies, switching into the professional, on-duty captain that she’s far more familiar with.

Her teeth tug on her lower lip. “I’ve been assigned an objective in Hutt Space. Just me - and Draahg. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone but if you could tell Vette where I’m going and pass on the message that the two of you are on leave until my return, I’d really appreciate it.”

Something in his face sinks. “Of course.”

“Thank you, Quinn.”

He hesitates before speaking, and she can see the faint flush in his cheeks, “If you wish, my lord, it would be an honor to have you stay for dinner.”

She can’t. She knows that now, that she’s out of place here. “We’re off duty. You can call me Gimrizh, you know.”

“My lord,” he says pointedly, “That would be highly unprofessional of me.”

“And that’s exactly why I can’t stay for dinner,” she explains. She opens the door and steps out, “Good night, Quinn.”

“Good night, my lord,” he says, defeated. As the door closes he stares at her, the same confusion that’s writhing away inside her mirrored on his face.

~*~

Jaesa opens her eyes. “What are you doing here?”

The Sith standing in front of her squirms. She hadn’t been expecting to see Gimrizh Korribanil for a while now. Not until after she decides whether or not to become Baras’s apprentice, at the least. And she has promised herself that she won’t decide that until after she sees what they do with Nomen Karr. She doesn’t know if that’s a deal breaker or not, if what they do to him will sway her one way or another, but it’s a benchmark that she feels she needs to see through before she chooses a path.

“I’m here to welcome you to Kaas City,” Korribanil says.

Jaesa was transferred to a cell block on the planet sometime this morning. She’s been on Kaas City for a while now. “Thank you.”

Korribanil tugs on her hair and then sits down on the ground in front of Jaesa. “I’ve decided to go with the assumption that you will become my master’s apprentice. That will make you my junior - but only just. It’s a better assumption to go with than your death.”

That ending has been one Jaesa only considers when she’s feeling especially morbid. “It is… more likely.”

“Good,” Korribanil says, relieved.

“So why are you here?”

To her shock, Korribanil turns off the containment field. Jaesa’s connection to the force loses the fuzz inhibitors of the field and returns to her with full strength. “If we’re to be trained together, I thought I would assist my master and give you lesson one. It helped me, when I felt uncertain, or when I couldn’t think properly.”

“Alright.”

Why not?

“Pick an emotion,” Korribanil says. She shifts so that her knees are underneath her and her hands rest lightly on her lap. Jaesa watches her breathing steady, in through her nose, out through her mouth. “A thought, a memory, a feeling. Anything will do. If there’s something you want to figure out, pick a related feeling.”

Jaesa’s eyes flutter closed.

Dipping into the river of the force is as easy as breathing. Normally she tries to use it as a focus, an outlet for her emotions, something to release them into. But ever since Karr… It hasn’t been working for her. She struggles to let go of even the tiniest feeling when before she could brush those aside easily. Once she lost sight of what she believed to be true her connection to the force shifted and she instinctively knows she can never shift it back.

Even if she wanted to.

“Good.” Korribanil’s voice is a small trail of lights in the force, leading somewhere Jaesa is hesitant to go. She follows. “Let it fill your mind and the force. Concentrate on it. Let whatever comes to mind happen, don’t try and push it.”

“You’re not going to ask me to clear my thoughts?”

“No. How do the Jedi teach meditation?” Korribanil shakes her head. Jaesa can’t see it, but she can feel the slightest shift of movement in Korribanil’s force presence. She can hear the way her hair moves, the way her head disturbs the air. “Let it clutter even, if that’s what you want.”

Jaesa settles down again and there’s peaceful silence.

To her, the force is a river.

It lies beneath her feet when she closes her eyes, a blinding river of white light.

The energy of every living thing in the galaxy. A never ending stream that she can step into. Sometimes she lets her consciousness get swept up in it and that is when she feels the strongest connection - she taps into that when she’s seeking answers, when she needs guidance, and she can follow the small branches of that river as they lead into other people. It’s like swimming upstream. That’s how she reads people, although she supposes others can’t do that.

In her mind’s eye, she looks down.

The river is still there. It didn’t go anywhere. She sighs in relief. After everything that’s happened, she hasn’t lost the light.

She lies down in the waters, closing her eyes and letting it engulf her. One by one, she pulls up her emotions. Confusion. Anger. Pain. Karr hurt her, like a scar inside her heart. She needs to let that go. But she doesn’t want to.

“You’re quite calm,” Korribanil says.

“Am I doing it wrong?”

“...No. There’s no real right or wrong way of mediation. But Darth Baras will be disappointed to see that you won’t connect to the dark side.”

“Oh.”

Jaesa looks at the river of light. All around it is pitch blackness. Is that the dark side? An endless cold sea of nothing? That can’t be right. That can’t be it. She didn’t feel that when she looked at Korribanil before. She doesn’t feel it now.

There’s a shift of fabric.

Korribanil is holding her hand out. “Find the dark side, Jaesa Willsaam.”

She doesn’t open her eyes. She doesn’t want to step into that nothingness. But she can’t pretend it’s not there. Slowly, she reaches her hand out, finding Korribanil’s through the force, and then her fingertips brush against the Sith.

She’s back in the river, letting the light rush and tumble over her feet. There’s that connection she can feel, like a thread leading her somewhere but as she turns her senses around her, she can’t see the thread spiraling off into the darkness. What she’s feeling isn’t cold at all. It’s not empty, it’s as alive as the river of light but different.

Slowly, Jaesa looks up.

Above her head is a river of stars in the night sky.

They aren’t separate, they’re reflections of each other, the two rivers winding through the galaxy in a parallel. An entire sky full of the force that she didn’t even know existed sits between the two of them and it’s beautiful, and the stars are beautiful, and the river of the light is still beautiful but she has context for them now -

Her eyes feel as though they’ve been blinded.

She yanks her hand away from Korribanil and opens her eyes, returning to herself on the floor of her jail cell.

“Did - “ She draws in a ragged gasp of breath. “You saw that too, didn’t you?”

Korribanil frowns. “Saw what?”

How did she not see that? The rivers, the sky - Jaesa never knew the force was like that. That it was so intense, that it was so all encompassing. “I - I don’t know if I can describe it.” She holds her hand out again, “Follow me to the light side. Let me show you.”

“I - “ Korribanil gets to her feet and takes a frightened step backwards, as though Jaesa’s hand is a live snake. “I need to leave. I’m due to be aboard a Harrower in an hour - I only meant to drop by briefly.” She’s scared. Her force signature is pulsing with fear, with a desire to run. “I will speak with you about - about this when I return. In the meantime, please consider your options.”

And then she’s gone.

Jaesa feels as though she’s finally taken the first step towards some form of truth. Now that she knows it’s there, she can no longer close her eyes.

~*~

“Enter.”

Malavai opens the office door and steps in.

“Take a seat, captain.”

“Yes, my lord.” He sits down in front of the empty desk. There’s a holo recorder set up to make sure than none of his report is lost.

Baras starts pacing the room. The sound dampening in the office cuts off any outside noise, leaving only the thud of Baras’s feet. Malavai tells himself that Baras can’t hear him breathing, despite his paranoia.

Malavai isn’t an idiot. He’s perfectly aware what the implications are of the Lord Gimrizh’s history. The information she provided him with hadn’t been excessive or particularly detailed, but she had told him enough for him to understand and he can fill in the rest himself. The obvious emotional ties she still has to her departed friend are made quite clear, and he’s certain that despite the circumstances surrounding her death, Gimrizh is still dearly attached to the Mirialan. It’s a worrisome prospect for one simple, damning reason - the Mirialan had betrayed the Empire. And if the Lord Gimrizh believes that her friend was in any way correct in that decision…

Malavai almost said nothing, almost considered the information that she had shared with him to be somehow too personal or too private for it to fall under the category of what Baras had asked him to report on. But that thought had been the very reason he had decided to tell Baras everything. Malavai is loyal, has to be loyal to Baras. And if he becomes too unprofessional with the Lord Gimrizh, grows too close to her, then his position as a spy is compromised. He informed Baras because if he hadn’t, he would be admitting some level of devotion to the Lord Gimrizh beyond what is decreed that an officer must give to a Sith and what Baras has ordered him to show.

And now he must keep an even closer eye on her. Her friend was a young, suicidally depressed, mere acolyte and still managed to betray the Empire. If Gimrizh shares even a fraction of those beliefs, what could she do?

Not to say that he doubts her commitment to the Empire or to the Sith. From his time with her, he has seen nothing but loyalty and obedience towards Baras and he honestly thinks that she fights with the Empire’s best interests in mind. Even if sometimes her methods are unusual, he would never misconstrue that as disloyalty. He’s hardly one to comment on acting outside of standard procedure, not with his past. He knows how easily Gimrizh could be condemned for her unconventionality. And he knows, from experience, that what Baras cares about is not methods, but results. And she is undeniably effective.

And still Baras has to know.

“Begin,” Baras orders. “Start with the first thing she told you regarding Yaina Rineth.”

~*~

Exalted Storm is exactly the same as Gimrizh remembers. She was just here, she’d far rather be back on Dromund Kaas or back on Horizon and yet she’s stuck with Draahg. Not that she dislikes him. In fact it’s rather the opposite, she finds his company pleasant in a way her master never could be, while he also tends to be instructive in a way she’d like Baras to be. She simply misses Quinn and Vette.

She shouldn’t have left it like that. When she closes her eyes she can still see Quinn standing at the door.

The weight of a practice sword in each hand is familiar. Grounding.

Stance wide, she reminds herself. Body low. Keep loose.

She’d thought it would be stupid, that it’d just make her feel worse, or that somehow, by telling someone about Yaina the memories would somehow slip away from her. That talking about Yaina was giving away parts of what she was, who she was. But it wasn’t like that. It had… helped.

Whatever idiot said talking about your problems helps might have actually been correct.

Instead of weakening her memories of Yaina, instead of cutting them up and giving parts of them away, instead… It had been like strengthening them. Like they were old and dusty and she cleaned them up to polish. Oh, it had still hurt. Every word she said to Quinn had felt like a needle burrowing into her skull but for some stupid reason she had felt better by the end of it. Lighter, maybe, like she was dragging something heavy around for years and managed to put it down for a few hours.

The practice droid swings and she’s already shooting behind it to lop its head off and send it flying across the training room. Another droid - behind. She leaps into a low spin, cutting through the metal of legs and sending sparks flying. She's struggling to remember the usual tempo of training that she enjoys. It eludes her.

Someone claps when she uses a force push to send the last droid flying.

She turns to see Draahg standing in the doorway. There's an open smile on his face. “Well done!”

“Ah - thank you.” She hadn't even been doing anything particularly impressive.

“I noticed you were using two lightsabers when we last fought side by side, but you weren’t using them on Tatooine.”

“It’s a new thing I’m trying out.”

He wanders over to the rack of practice weapons and examines them. “Would you like a sparring partner? I was just considering getting a bit of practice in while we’re stuck in hyperspace.”

“Thank you, but I'm afraid I'll have to turn you down.” She hangs her blades up. “I'm not in the right mindset for it at the moment.”

“Oh. That's a shame.”

She bows respectfully. “I'll be meditating in my room. Please excuse me.”

“Of course.”

When she leaves it feels like fleeing.

~*~

Draahg and Korribanil wander through the streets of Aklat, the second largest city on Klatooine.

Concealed by cloaks as they are, they don’t have to worry about being spotted. The fashion on Klatooine is concealing, baggy clothes that can survive the hot, arid weather, keeping the wearer both from getting burned and also from getting trapped in tight sweaty clothes. They don’t fit in, exactly, but they don’t stand out either. It helps that Klatooinians are humanoid, and no one is getting a close enough look at them to determine that they aren’t Klatooinian.

“Baras’s coordinates point to a safe house just ahead,” Korribanil points out as they make their way through the streets.

Draahg can spot it now. The Republic guards are a dead giveaway. “Mm,” he agrees. “Just past that fountain.”

“How do you want to do this?”

“After you?”

She blinks. “Okay.”

Draahg hangs back by the fountain, watching from behind the wavy falls of water as Korribanil approaches the safe house.

She holds up her hands as she approaches, speaking to the Republic guards in a low voice that he can’t hear over the city square. Just two guards? Clearly, Gonn relies on stealth, hiding under the radar, instead of impressive securities. Then Draahg senses a tug on the force and both the guards turn and walk away, leaving the entrance unprotected. She turns and waves him forward.

“Impressive.”

“Thank you,” she acknowledges.

He cracks the door open, ignoring the security panel. The foyer is deserted, just a bulkhead wall built into what can only be a bunker.

This time he’s the one to step forward. He draws his lightsaber and puts the blade through the lock, leaning casually against the hilt as it melts into the durasteel. “Isn’t interesting how these types never seem to be well equipped to defend against Sith? They need to take a page out of the Empire’s book and properly integrate their Jedi forces with their armies. Although that would imply a level of effectiveness that they’ve never demonstrated before.”

“I’m not going to complain if they want to make our job easy,” she replies.

He laughs. “Too true.”

What few chunks of white-hot steel are left from the lock fall to the ground with a clatter. “Shall we?” he drawls, gesturing to the now useless door.

“How polite of you.” She puts her hand flat on the door and then pushes on it. The metal screeches with protest even as it crumples away from her with the ease of flimsiplast.

Behind the door is the meeting they were sent to interrupt. It’s not a substantial large group, just a small troop of Republic soldiers and a couple of Chiss agents. Traitors to the Empire, he thinks viciously.

And there, in the middle of it, is General Karastace Gonn. Draahg recognizes the man from the moment he sees him. Old Republic propaganda from the war had featured the General heavily, his face had flown on banners during the war, his speeches had been broadcasted on the holonet. It would be impossible for Draahg not to remember what the man looked like. Gonn has single handedly been responsible for a great number of Imperial deaths. Evening the score a little is an appealing prospect.

“Men, we’ve got trouble!” one of the soldiers yells as soon as they catch sight of them, “Rally around the General!”

What a waste of time.

Draahg raises his hand and uses the force to rip the blasters from their hands. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

General Gonn pushes his way to the front, standing in front of the soldiers this time, “Stay back,” he tells them, before turning back to the two of them. “I think I can guess who you Sith are,” Gonn says, “Was it Vengean or Baras who found me out?”

“You’ll have to die not knowing,” Draahg says.

Gonn levels him with a firm, unshaking look. “Baras then. He’s more the type to send goons. Vengean would have taken his Harrower and bombarded the planet. I’ll have to be careful moving forward.”

“No one can hide from our master,” Korribanil replies, calmly crossing her arms and staring coolly at the General.

Gonn shrugs, “I was successful before. I’ll be successful again.”

There won’t be an again.

Draahg nods towards the Chiss contingent. “Kill them.”

He twirls his lightsaber and cuts through the Republic troops. They go down like sandbags, and at his side he can see Korribanil spin through the Chiss group, leaving a streak of blood in her wake. And then she stills and they all fall down.

There’s a hiss as he deactivates his lightsaber. “Why don’t you deal the final blow?”

Ridding the galaxy of this detestable General will be a public service. Draahg would be thrilled to take it himself, but she’s the one under observation, not him. At the end of the day, this doesn’t matter to him. It’ll make a world of difference to her.

“I’m honored,” she says in thanks.

He gives her a respectful bow before turning his full and undivided attention to Gonn. In one swift, satisfying motion, she lunges forward and plunges her saber through the general’s head. There’s a smoking crater in the man’s forehead when she pulls her saber out. Gonn’s body sags and slowly slides down to the floor, dead eyes open and gaping at nothing.

And then there is one less Republic mastermind running around the galaxy.

“Well done,” he compliments. “I’ll make sure to tell Baras of your success.”

“I could not have done this without you.”

He smiles at her and slides a hand onto her shoulder. “You’re quite impressive. Don’t be so modest.”

To his glee, a blush slides onto her cheeks. “Ah - thank you.”

“Come. Let’s head back to Exalted Storm. I’m sure our master is waiting eagerly for our progress report. And the Empire is waiting to strike now that Gonn is dead.” He leads her out of the bunker. “You have no idea what we’ve just done for the Empire. Our master is building a new future for all of us.”

“I’m honored to be part of it all,” she replies.

Draahg chuckles and opens the front door for her. “You don’t need to be so formal with me. I’m not just a mini-copy of our master, I promise.”

“Sorry, I didn’t - “ She clears her throat. Looks like he hit the nail on the head for that one. “I suppose I’m just not used to being friendly with my superiors.”

“Come on, I’m only technically above you. We’re both Baras’s apprentices after all.”

“You’re right, of course.”

He sends a message off to their shuttle. It’ll meet them at the edge of the city and then they can be off this arid world. Back to civilization. Back to parts of the galaxy that speak Basic, thank the stars. “You know, that offer of a drink is still open. We might be stuck aboard a Harrower for another week and a bit, but there’s decent booze on board and no one will tell two Sith no. It’d be nice to get to know you better.”

Korribanil hesitates. Then she smiles back at him. “I’d be happy to.”

~*~

“I’m not sure about this,” Jaesa says for maybe the hundredth time. It’s actually not been a hundred times even though it feels that has. It’s only been seven. Vette’s counted.

Seven times or not, Vette refuses to relent. “Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing,” she reassures her.

And she does know what she’s doing.

She waves her security pass through the air like it’s a fan. “You’re on probation now. Congrats! I guess they had to let you out to see what they’re going to do with Nomen Karr, so they figured as long as you have an official escort,” she pauses and points to herself, “then you’re fine. But uh, don’t take that tracker anklet off. I think they’ll get rather pissed off if you do that.”

Jaesa wriggles her ankle. “I won’t.”

“Ta-da!” Vette trills as they come to a stop along one of the side streets in the lower levels of Kaas City.

Jaesa looks at the sign. She looks back at Vette. “A cantina?”

Grinning from ear to ear, Vette steps back and lets Jaesa enter first. “Have a little faith.”

There’s still nervousness on Jaesa’s face, but she heads into the cantina all the same.

As it’s almost four in the afternoon, the cantina isn’t exactly bustling. Likely the place won’t get busy for another few hours and even then this joint doesn’t exactly look like it’s a real hot spot of cantina activity.

There’s a passed-out drunk NCO collapsed over a back table, and two humans playing a silent yet furious game of sabacc in the corner. Apart from that, the place is damn empty. Vette slides on over to the counter and grabs a seat. After a brief moment of hesitation, Jaesa sits next to her.

The bartender - a smoking hot brunette - catches sight of them. She leans on the counter in front of them. “What can I get you?”

Four in the afternoon is never too early for Vette to start drinking. “Whiskey. And for her, she’ll have something with citrus.”

“How - “ Jaesa blinks. “How did you know I like citrus?”

Internally, Vette cheers. “I learned from the best.”

Hen the drinks arrive Jaesa takes a sip, thinks about it, and then smiles that absolutely stunning smile at the bartender. “I love it! This is really good!”

The bartender frowns. “You Alderaanian?”

“I-” Jaesa stutters, “Yes. How can you tell?”

“Accent,” she says simply, “You don’t dress all fancy, but you got a couple of their speech quirks that some of the nobles use. Guessing you’re not a noble yourself, though?”

“No, not really,” she admits, “I was… I was a handmaiden for some time. My parents desired for me to marry into a wealthy family and deliver them from poverty, but that wasn’t… It wasn’t in the cards for me, I suppose.”

She nods thoughtfully, “That’d explain the accent. What’d you do? Run away from home?”

“Stars,” Vette rolls her eyes at her, “Could you be any more nosey? Do you need to know her blood type, too, or will you settle for swiping her fingerprints from the glass? Come on, we’re not paying for an interrogation.”

The bartender rolls her eyes, sets the bottle of whiskey on the counter for her, and slides out of their space.

“Sorry about that,” Vette hastily apologizes to a somewhat stunned Jaesa.

Jaesa waves it off, even though Vette can tell it bugs her a little, “It’s fine. She seemed nice. And she did make me a drink. Besides, I know that I don’t appear as either a standard Alderaanian, or Jedi, or Sith. I understand that I might be an object of curiosity-”

Right then and there Vette stops her. “Lesson one,” she says firmly, holding up a finger, “Never refer to yourself as an object.”

“But-” Jaesa tries, and then trails off. “It’s just a saying.”

“You say something for long enough, you start believing it,” Vette tells her. It’s one of the things Vette has found to be universally true. When she called herself a slave, even in her own head, she felt like a slave, through and through. Words are more than just sounds. “You’re not an object, okay? You’re a person, and don’t forget it. You’re don’t have to be ‘a Jedi’ or ‘a Sith’, or whatever you think that means. Just be yourself.”

Jaesa stares into her glass like it might hold all the answers. It’s a familiar expression, one that Vette has seen on her own face a dozen times over the years. That constant wondering, that uncertainty. Not just the self-doubt, but the ongoing wheel of questions churning away inside. The question ‘what am I? Am I this thing that others say I am?’

Am I a slave? Am I a Sith? Am I a Jedi?

“It’s easy,” Jaesa says at last, “for me to see who other people really are. Right now, if I wished, I could find out the deepest secrets of what makes you you. When I was a Jedi, I thought that I knew what I was doing, that I knew what I had signed up for. And it was a lie, of course. But it was easy to think of myself as a Jedi. Now, it seems as though I must become a Sith, the antithesis of everything I once was. I constantly feel off balance.”

Vette abandons her drink and puts her arm around Jaesa’s shoulders, slowly, just in case she’s as weird about touchy-feely stuff as the boss is. She's not apparently, and Jaesa leans into the touch. “When I stopped being a slave, the first time,” she explains, “I felt something similar. Like, who am I now that I’m not a slave?”

“I was a Jedi,” Jaesa agrees. She hugs her arms tightly. “Now I don’t know if I am. After everything I’ve seen, I don’t think I can go back. Will I still be a Jedi, pretending to be a Sith, or will I be a Sith who was pretending to be a Jedi?”

Vette gently pats her hand, going for something reassuring. “You don’t have to be one of those options, you know? You can just be Jaesa Willsaam.”

“Is Jaesa Willsaam enough?” she asks, in a whisper so quiet that it almost breaks Vette’s heart.

It is. And she’ll make Jaesa realize that, too.

“I’ll shoot anyone that says otherwise,” Vette promises, “Even if I have to shoot every Sith and Jedi in the galaxy.”

A tiny giggle escapes Jaesa’s lips, “That’s rather a lot of fighting.”

“Maybe I’ll only shoot the really bad ones,” Vette teases, “And just rough the other ones up a bit.”

Jaesa laughs into her drink and Vette beams at her. If fighting Jaesa’s doubt takes a thousand jokes, Vette’ll do that too. There’s something so good about Jaesa, something that Vette’s seen since that first holo where Jaesa bargained for the lives of the people she cares about without a thought for her own safety. Someone that selfless and kind deserves better than living with guilt and doubt.

~*~

Geonosis has been neatly secured for the Empire by the time they arrive on Dromund Kaas again.

Gimrizh kneels before her master with Draahg at her side.

“Vengean is thrilled with these latest developments,” Baras says. She can hear the purr in his voice and tries not to gag on the sound. “Well done, my apprentices.”

Draahg is the first to stand up straight. “Thank you, master. Korribanil’s performance in the field is to be commended. She’s quite the budding talent.”

“I see,” Baras replies slowly. He tosses a datastick at Draahg, who catches it with the force. “Those are your coordinates. I’m sure you know what must be done. Depart Dromund Kaas as soon as possible and report back when you arrive.”

He salutes. “Yes, master.”

That vague exchange is all Gimrizh gets before he departs and leaves her alone with Baras.

“Vengean will send his destroyer to the fringe systems.” He’s gleeful, she’s so rarely heard that level of sheer enjoyment from him and it’s worrisome. “I’ve waited a long time for my master to give the order I have just received. Apprentice. Plan Zero is the systematic elimination of the Republic’s top military leaders. A preemptive strike that will leave the enemy headless. The targets are the Empire’s most accomplished adversaries. And not to be taken lightly.”

There’s nothing she can do to stop this war.

“Who are the targets you would send me after, my master?”

He clasps his hands behind his back and strides in front of her, pacing the room like a contented predator, “There are two I must still locate, Admiral Monk who commands the Republic fleet, and Jedi Knight Xerender, who leads an elite squad of commandos. But the other targets - the four generals of the Republic’s strategic command - are confirmed to be on the planet Taris. They are known as the War Trust. Normally, they’re never together in one place. This is an incredible opportunity.”

“Then I shall prepare to leave for Taris as soon as you command it,” she says.

“Remember,” Baras warns, “Do not underestimate them. The War Trust has stretched the Republic thin and fought us to a standstill time and again. They are master strategists. Your targets will be Generals Faraire, Minst, Durant, and Frelka. Each will likely be protected by their own elite guard, and they have all the Republic forces on Taris at their disposal.”

She’s going to have to start a war. “I will bring the Republic to its knees,” she promises. This is what she wants, isn’t it?

“If the War Trust can be killed, then yes, that will be the effect it causes,” Baras agrees, “Moff Hurdenn leads the Imperial forces on Taris. I will inform him of your arrival and he will provide whatever resources he can.”

She bows once more to him, and adds, “Yes, my master.”

“One more thing.”

“Yes?”

Baras hands her a new ID card. “Congratulations on your promotion to Sith Lord, my apprentice. I am confident that you will continue to impress me with your new position.”

A lord? But she’s - She takes the card. “I’m honored, master. Thank you, truly, I am grateful.”

“You should be.”

That’s a dismissal and yet -

“Master?”

His one visible eye narrows into a slit. “Yes?”

“When would you like me to deliver Jaesa Willsaam to you? Nomen Karr is to be dealt with today - ”

“Oh.” Baras turns around, disinterested. “The girl is no longer a concern. She doesn’t matter. Actually… why don’t you take her on as your apprentice? I’d be interested to see what you make her into. And as a lord, it is your right to take any apprentice that you see fit.”

Gimrizh is in no way prepared to take an apprentice and Baras knows it. Most don’t get promoted to Sith Lord until they have at least two years of experience under their belts and she has just under one. Most don’t take apprentices until at least another year or so after that, and she already graduated early from both Institute Five and the main Academy. She doesn’t have the experience. Frankly, she doesn’t think she has the temperment, although neither does Baras.

Either way, this is clearly not a request. Gimrizh turns over a dozen thoughts to try and see if there’s an angle she could argue to get out of this, but there’s nothing that would hold water. She’s stuck.

“Thank you, master,” she says instead. “You honor me.”

“Dismissed. Go pick up your new apprentice.”

She leaves as fast as she can.

The walls of the Sanctum blurr around her as she walks towards the shuttle terminal in front of the building. She feels as though she’s in a confused daze, her thoughts trying to catch up to the reality around her.

She steps into a taxi and tells the droid to head to the prison complex where Jaesa Willsaam is waiting.

First.

Baras promoted her to the rank of Lord. While not expected, not exactly, she can see how it’s still legal. There’s no law that demands a certain tenure as an apprentice before being promoted. It’s more of a guideline than anything else. And she’s done more in the last year than more apprentices do in the entirety of their service. And now. Now she’s a Sith Lord.

She imagines that Baras will be watching her far more carefully from now on.

No, even though she has gained a title, which comes with increased power, access, money, and most importantly, respect, it isn’t enough. She’s not strong enough to get out from under Baras’ thumb, and she’s not sure she ever will be. His former master is a key member of the Dark Council, he probably has a solid quarter of the Sith Order on his payroll or under surveillance. She knows first hand just how many spies he has out there. If she can’t overcome all those obstacles then no titles will matter. She still needs to keep doing what she’s been doing since she met Baras. Keep her head down, keep quiet, and follow orders.

Why give her Jaesa? That’s what she can’t figure out.

Up until this moment, Jaesa had been top priority. Baras had said himself that he would take her as his newest apprentice, and now suddenly she’s just another Sith in his collection, with no real importance? Gimrizh is missing a piece of the puzzle. Something must have happened to make Baras write Jaesa off. But what? Her powers are still there, still dangerous, although hopefully no longer a threat to the Empire. What aspect of her value has diminished?

She’s still trying to turn it over when the droid releases her into the cell block entrance.

It’s one of the lowest levels in Kaas City, and one of the most heavily guarded. They predominantly contain force sensitives here, and they are right to be on such a stringent watch. While she doesn’t know for certain, she’s heard rumors that a few Jedi are kept here, prisoners from the war that they’ve deemed too dangerous - and too valuable - to release.

She flashes her new ID - the one proclaiming her to be a Lord of the Sith. After a series of scans, and taking her lightsabers through two separate detection machines before they return them, she’s finally allowed in.

A set of guards escorts her to Jaesa’s cell.

“She’s been mostly quiet since your visit, my lord,” the sergeant here informs her. “She’s been granted a conditional release so long as she remains in the custody of an Imperial official. Your contractor escorted her to a cantina seven days ago.”

There’s no way Quinn would - Vette. Of course. So she’s calling herself a contractor now? It’s close enough, Gimrizh supposes. “She’ll be given full release today.”

“Yes, my lord.” The sergeant pauses and then adds, “She’s been asking to see her parents.”

“Ah.”

Gimrizh comes to a stop in front of the cell.

Jaesa is exactly as she had been two weeks ago. Sitting cross legged on the floor, her eyes closed in mediation. “Hello again,” she says, looking up at Gimrizh.

A quick wave of the force deactivates the containment field. “You wanted to see Karr’s fate. I am to escort you.”

In a hasty instant Jaesa is on her feet and brushing down the front of her robes.

Although Gimrizh has no idea where in the cell block Karr is, the sergeant does, and he’s happy to lead the two of them, along with a squad of soldiers, towards the depths of the prison where Karr is waiting.

“Sith?” Jaesa asks, “Korribanil?”

“Yes?”

“My parents… how are they?”

“I don’t know. Depending on your decision, you might be able to see them today.”

They’re lead into a balcony that wraps around a stone grey room with no windows, deep in the bowels of the prison complex. While they get a place of honor from which to view the proceedings, a few other silent observers dot the lower levels, perhaps relatives of those Karr killed. Many Imperials died to Jedi hands during the war.

Jaesa tightens her hands on the railing. “What is the verdict?”

“Death.” For a Jedi Master, it is unlikely to be anything but. And from what Gimrizh read on the hyperspace journey back, the man had been particular unrepentant. “He’s killed dozens of Sith personally - from Darths to young acolytes, barely old enough to hold a lightsaber. His operations attacked a Sith Institute on Ord Radama and slaughtered the acolytes studying there. I’m certain he’s already refused to give up any information that might have spared his life. There’s no choice left to us but to end his life.”

The doors below open.

Karr is dragged forward, his hands and ankles bound with force suppressing cuffs.

“So if I accept.” Jaesa takes a deep breath and stares straight at her master. “What shall Baras expect of me?”

As if Gimrizh hasn’t been asking herself that same question since she left Korriban. “There’s been a change of plans,” she says carefully. “Baras has… He’s decided that you are to become my apprentice, not his. I have just been promoted to the title Lord of the Sith, and as such I am now legally able to take apprentices. You can still choose not to accept, of course. I understand that this is far from the offer I gave you earlier.”

Karr is brought into the center of the room.

A Sith warrior restrains him, forcing him down onto his knees and placing his neck onto a durasteel block. Someone has decided that Karr’s done enough talking for one lifetime and placed a metal muzzle across the bottom half of his face. Even with that, Karr still struggles until two additional guards are brought over. They plant their electrostaves across his back, forcing him down.

Jaesa asks, “I thought - I thought I was a danger to Baras.”

“So did I.”

“What changed?”

The Sith ignites a red lightsaber.

“I don’t know.”

In a flash of crimson, the Sith brings the blade down.

Karr’s head hits the floor.

Slowly, Jaesa loosens her white knuckled grip on the railing. She lets out a deep breath. Closes her eyes.

Gimrizh turns to her and holds out her hand. “Would you like to find out?”

“I want the truth,” Jaesa replies. She opens her steely eyes. And takes Gimrizh’s hand. “I welcome your guidance, Master Gimrizh.”

~*~

“So that Sith…”

Mal sighs. “Enough.”

Lucian picks his helmet up by hooking his foot under the visor, kicking it into the air, and then catching it. Better than having to bend down. He pats down his pockets, checking for his ID, his keys, his com - got everything. “I’m just saying,” he adds to Mal, who is being unreasonably uncooperative. “She’s hot.”

“She is also my commanding officer.”

“A hot commanding officer.” Lucian wiggles his eyebrows as he kicks his bucket of bolts speeder bike to life. “Do you think she’s commanding in all respects?”

Mal glares at him. “Don’t you have a training exercise to be late to?”

So uptight. Lucian snickers and shoves his head into his helmet. “Yeah, yeah. Enjoy your latest round of flying around the galaxy with your hot boss. Here’s a tip for you - I’ve heard Sith are into choking! ”

“Lucian!”

He’s still laughing as he flies out of their garage and into the open airways of Kaas City.

One day his brother might loosen up. It’s unlikely as hell, but theoretically possible and it is Lucian’s brotherly duty to encourage such a thing. Besides, Lucian totally saw that cute little blush on Gimrizh’s cheeks when she’d asked about Mal’s past girlfriends. He’s an excellent wingman, although Mal severely under appreciates it.

It takes a near collision for him to stop laughing under his breath.

He’d prefer not to get knocked out of the sky right now, and the MPs tend to be rather rude about crashes.

And as much as he jokes about it, he does take his career quite seriously. He’d be shattered if he was suspended from service due to such a stupid mistake. Especially given that his squad is supposed to get a new member today. Last week they lost his former wingman - fighting wise, not dating wise. Karn had been transferred to fly patrols along their border with Tion space and now Lucian can’t be deployed when they’re one short.

Today is just a basic arms and accuracy assessment, running drills in holo mazes. Nothing involving ships. The most they get is sim runs. What a shame. Pro of that means he doesn’t have to leave Kaas City.

The navy building he pulls up to is familiar to him. He’s been on the Kaas system protection detail for five years now. Pro again - he gets a lot more downtime than, say, Mal.

He parks his speeder alongside a hundred other vehicles and pops his helmet off, sticking it under his arm as he saunters into the building. His ID gets scanned at the entrance, and then again in the lower levels when he enters his squad’s reserved training area.

A simulation ISF cockpit is set up, but Lucian is the first to arrive.

Or… not?

“Oh.” The figure already inside the cockpit stands up and then hops out. It’s a Chiss, with turquoise skin and slicked back hair. “Hello,” he says, his Kaasi accent tinged by something Lucian can’t quite place. Something about how he slides his vowels and consonants together. “You must be my new wingman. I’m Kan’illene - just call me Ille.”

Lucian’s mouth goes dry. “Uh. Hi. I’m Lucian.”

Ille smirks. “Nice to meet you, Lucy.”

~*~

Gimrizh taps her foot impatiently against the table legs. The noise of the busy cafe drowns in her ears, punctuated by the clink of her spoon against her mug of caf as she stirs her drink. She crushes another caffeine pill into her caf and mixes it in, taking a deep sip to try and stop herself from indulging in one of her many nervous ticks. She'd told Quinn fourteen hundred and it is still ten minutes to go before that deadline but she hadn't been able to stop herself from arriving early.

Why is she such a wreck waiting for her captain to arrive? She’d wanted to see Quinn, hadn’t she?

She’s afraid. This - the War Trust - it’s unlike anything they’ve done before. It’s real. It’s not a mission that lies within Baras’s usual world of spy versus spy, within the confines of his shadowy underbelly. This will shatter the peace that, while not stable by any means, has lasted almost eleven years.

If they start the war on their terms they could wipe out the Republic. Actually destroy them. They could end the Jedi, the dream that Gimrizh has been fed since childhood. Isn’t that what she’s spent her life training for? The glory of the Sith - and the extermination of the Jedi.

It is not what she imagined as a child.

She’s chewing on her spoon when she sees Quinn enter the cafe.

He’s precisely five minutes early and for some reason that makes her smile. How reliable. As her message to him had specified that this is meant to be casual, he’s once again dressed out of uniform. This time he’s wearing a white button-up shirt that’s rolled up to his elbows and dark navy trousers. She hesitates, awkwardly trying to figure out if she should wave or not, and then he thankfully spares her the embarrassment by catching her eye and heading over.

She’d managed to snag a table in a more quiet corner of the bustling cafe and then kept it by glaring at anyone who tried to steal the unused chair that Quinn now sits down in.

“Welcome back to Dromund Kaas, my lord,” he says.

“Thank you. I much prefer the rain to the dry air of space travel.”

She signals a server and waits as Quinn orders a cup of tea.

“Is there a reason you asked to meet?” he asks, carefully considering the cup of tea now in front of him as though it’ll be more amenable to conversation than she will be. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I wasn’t expecting a briefing until tomorrow when we rendezvous with Vette.”

Gimrizh drags a hand through her hair, grabbing a fistful of it and tugging. “Yes, I - this isn’t about work. I meant it when I said this was an informal meeting.” She yanks hard and then forces her fingers to unwind before she actually pulls her hair out. “I wanted to apologize. It was a violation of your privacy to intrude on your home like that. I shouldn’t have done so and I’m sorry for any unrest that I might have caused between you and Lucian.”

“That’s quite alright, my lord,” he quickly replies.  He gives a flustered cough. “I admit it was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one.”

“Still, I am sorry - “

“It’s forgiven.” He freezes when he realizes he’s interrupted her. “My lord, I’m so - “

She holds her hand up. “This is informal, Quinn, I promised. We’re both off duty, feel free to be as rude to me as you’d like.”

“I would never,” he insists. “I have a great deal of respect for you, my lord.”

“Ah - thank you.” It takes her hearts a moment to still. He shouldn’t be able to throw her off guard like this and yet… “Funnily enough, I actually am a Lord now. Darth Baras promoted me yesterday. The next mission we go on will be my first as a Lord of the Sith.”

Quinn’s wide blue eyes fill with something akin to awe. “Please allow me to offer my most sincere congratulations. That is a high honor, one I’m certain you already live up to.” That faint smile dances around his lips. “I’d bow, but we are in public. Perhaps when we return to Horizon?”

“Please,” she says with a laugh. “There’s no need for that.”

The smirk on his lips is far too attractive to be legal. This is unfair. “Regardless, this promotion is well earned. Congratulations.”

“Thank you.”

“It - “ he pauses. “It’s good to have you back, my lord,”

“It’s good to be back.”

I missed you.

~*~

Jaesa Willsaam doesn’t know what her life has become.

A month ago she was tucked away in one of her former master’s safe houses, waiting and worrying while someone she didn’t know hunted down her family. She never would have guessed what awaited her. Now, she’s sitting in a speeder that cuts through the Dromund Kaas clouds, about to begin training as a Sith and working for the Empire.

Outside the rain soaked windows of the taxi speeder is the heart of the Empire. After she leaves this place she'll still have no reprieve from this new life. They’re headed to Taris. To kill high ranking members of the Republic. She’s still not sure how she feels about that.

The deception of it all has been eating away at her. Strangely enough, it had been Vette that had helped her. Vette’s younger than herself, but she’s so much wiser than she is. Her friend - and yes, she feels confident in calling Vette a friend - has been a great gift. Gimrizh tried, she thinks, but she understands that the reality of their situation does not allow her new master much time for other duties. Vette just knew what the problem is after only a moment of looking.

Slowly but surely, Jaesa’s life is coming back together, tiny pieces of who she was meeting who she has to be.

She steps out of the speeder and into the thundering gloom.

Through the storming rainfall she can see two figures open the doors of the apartment and step out. Then she can feel them.

“Mother,” she sobs. “Father. I’m home.”

~*~

“And the fuel cells?” Gimrizh asks as she skims through Horizon’s port log. Her ship has been docked here for a month now, and none of her crew have been directly overseeing it’s upkeep - as far as she knows. It’s highly likely that Vette and Quinn returned to the ship to pick up their personal belongings during such a long time planetside. If she hadn’t been flying to Klatooine and back during that time, she’d probably have done the same.

The member of the port authority nods. “Fully recharged, my lord, as well as the backup generator. An update to the shield generator also rolled out and we took the liberty of installing that, per your instructions.”

“Good.” She hands the port log back. “We should be on schedule to depart before tomorrow night.”

The woman bows. “Very good, my lord.”

Gimrizh dismisses her and pulls her datapad out of her bag, preparing to send a message off to her now expanded crew.

Instead, an unread message is waiting for her.

Lord Gimrizh Korribanil:

Many months ago you asked me a question I was not prepared to answer. Attached are all the relevant files concerning my involvement in the Battle of Druckenwell. If you have any further questions, I am, as always, at your disposal.

- Your Captain, Malavai Quinn

~*~

Draahg lounges under the Korriban sun.

While the planet is usually quite cool, there’s a nice warmth during the few hours where the sun sits straight overhead in the sky. Sitting against a statue in Tjzarra Valley makes him nostalgic for his days in the Academy. He tosses the datastick his master gave him from one hand to the other while he waits. This part of Korriban is not well trafficked at all, and especially not at this time of day. He’s alone with his thoughts, the only interruption is the occasional air traffic overhead.

By the time his new contact arrives he’s waited long enough to become preemptively irritated with the fellow.

“It’s about time,” he says, getting to his feet and glaring at the newcomer. “If you want to keep this position, you should know that Darth Baras doesn’t stand for tardiness.”

The new apprentice is a red Sith, with orange skin and hair like rust, his face dotted with gold jewelry. “Sorry,” he says, without any repentance. “It took awhile for my flimsiwork to be processed. Technically I think I’m apprenticed to Inquisitor Urinth, aren’t I? Is that just to provide cover or what?”

“Urinth is your new master. Baras doesn’t have time to train you and my time is limited as well. If you are to be of any use at all, you will need more full time training than we can provide. That’s what Urinth is here for.”

“Hm. Fine.”

Draahg is not impressed. He tucks the datastick into his pocket and heads towards his ship at the edge of the valley. “Shut up and come with me, Korribanil.”

Korribanil’s hands ball into fists. “My name is Reus.”

“I don’t care.”

~*~

Chapter Text

~*~

A sky full of stars illuminates Gimrizh’s private quarters.

Sleep has once again eluded her. Every time she just began to drift off, flashes of the Korriban desert dance behind her eyelids and she hears an insidious whisper in her dreams that sounds almost like Baras, or Draahg. She jolted awake at least five times during the night. A silly as it might sound, she finds the cartosphere Quinn gave her to be comforting. The slow drag of the stars across her ceiling and the soft blue light soothe her nerves and calm her racing heartsbeat as well as giving her something to focus on besides her tumultuous thoughts.

When she finally drags herself out of bed she is desperate for some sort of stim or caf. They should be arriving at the Taris orbital station in a few hours. She uses the force to deactivate the cartophere, pulls a random assortment of clothing onto her body, and goes to find breakfast that will wake her up.

Something warm and butter scented wafts through the galley door, welcoming her in. Quinn is standing at the stovetop, dropping a pat of butter into a pan. A pot of caf - fresh caf - is sitting on the counter, steam still rising from the spout. They’re only a few days into their hyperspace journey, so Gimrizh shouldn’t be surprised that they still have fresh food. Not that she really pays attention to their stocks.

“Good morning,” she says, stepping properly into the galley.

He almost drops the stick of butter before turning back to his cooking. “Ah, good morning, my lord.”

There’s a stiffness between them that wasn’t there before. An awkwardness she can’t help but feel as she pours herself a mug of caf.

She read his files.

The reports after the battle, one from Broysc. One from Quinn. The official detainment records - he had been in jail for months when the war was at its most brutal, when they needed everyone they could get. The order for a court martial. And the statement from Broysc pushing for a firing squad.

Then a quiet notice pushing Quinn to Balmorra and that seemed to be the end of that, only it couldn’t have been because he should not have been on Balmorra for ten krething years.

Logically, she knew that the Empire lets things slip through the cracks. With so many people under one banner and so many planets that need governing, contesting, or conquering, there are always going to be mistakes in the system. People slip up - even droids do. She just hadn’t been expecting such flagrant abuse of power for so - so petty a reason. And she hadn’t been expecting that such a tragedy would have happened to Quinn, of all people.

“Quinn?” she says quietly as she stirs her caf, “I’m sorry.”

He tenses up. “I didn’t send you the files out of a desire for pity, I sent them to you because you needed to know.”

“I’m not pitying you. And I didn’t need to know. You could have continued to serve on my crew just fine without me knowing - it’s worked that way for almost a year now, hasn’t it? I’m - I’m grateful, and humbled, that you trust me enough to let me know this part of your past. For what it’s worth, I think - I know that you did the right thing.” She tightens her hand around her cup. “And if that is ever questioned again, I’ll stand on your side.”

Quinn slowly turns around, a puzzled frown on his face. “There’s no need for you to do that, my lord.”

“Yes. There is.”

“I - I see. Regardless, Broysc hasn’t made an appearance since I left Balmorra. I am uncertain if he will, now that I am more directly serving the Sith.”

“About that,” she asks. “Your sudden deployment to Balmorra. It came through official channels, of course, but that was Baras, wasn’t it? He spoke about you owing him a debt, and I can’t figure out how else you would have ended up working for him if a Moff was trying to destroy you.”

“That’s correct, my lord.”

“For what it’s worth, I won’t allow Broysc to interfere with your career again. Even if Baras steps aside now that you’re on my crew.”

He sighs, letting out a breath he’s been holding for almost eleven years. Anger flares up within her and she almost hopes that she does get to meet Broysc some day, if only to punch him square in the face for what he’s done to her captain. “Thank you, my lord. I don’t deserve your kindness.”

“Yes, you do.”

He says nothing, quietly returning to his cooking.

“Can I ask a question?”

“Of course, my lord.”

There are a number of gaps in the files, things that don't quite line up. Baras’s involvement, predominantly. Her master works behind the scenes and from what she can tell, half of what he did never made it to record. She asks the most mild of her questions first. “I understand why Broysc wanted credit for your actions, I am just uncertain how he got away with it. How was he able to avoid an investigation? He was pushing for a firing squad - wouldn't there have been some questions about that?”

Quinn’s lip curls into an angry snarl. “Broysc,” he says, spitting the name out, “has always been good at finding friends in the right places. There was an investigation. They simply concluded that Broysc was correct on all counts.”

“They believed Broysc snuck on board a Republic ship to destroy artillery?”

“Only officially.”

“Were you able to appeal?”

“It was the last few months of the war. We were in a state of emergency, and I assure you Broysc used every tactic to sweep this under the rug.”

She’s fuming, but there’s no point getting angry at Quinn - he’s already more furious about the whole thing than she could ever be. A small crack is forming in her mug and she has to force her hands to relax before she breaks it. “I see. I’m… grateful that Baras was able to pull you out before Broysc - well.”

“As am I.”

Gimrizh drains the last few drops of caf in her mug and then walks around the counter to drop it in the sink. Stars, whatever Quinn’s cooking smells incredible.

“What’s that?”

He practically jumps at her question. Apparently he didn’t realize that she was standing right behind him. “It’s just fish, my lord. I thought that we should go through the stores of fresh food quickly, before anything spoils.”

“Right. It smells amazing by the way.”

“Oh.” He steps a little bit to the side, letting her get closer to the sizzling pan. “Er - Would you like some, my lord?”

Oh well, she supposes caf isn’t exactly a balanced breakfast. He hands her a spoon and lets her dip it into the pan, scooping up some of the soft, buttery fish. Having subsisted off packaged protein and occasional bag of chips, she realizes she has no idea what kind of fish this is or what the thin sauce it’s bathed in is. She shoves the spoon in her mouth and savors.

Something inside her melts. It’s salty in all the best ways, rich but still light, she has no idea what half the flavors she’s tasting are. She just knows that she wants more.

She goes back for a second spoonful and whimpers as she eats it.

It’s krething delicious. Unethically good. Stars, is this what she’s been missing out on for years? “Is this what food can taste like?” she asks between bites. “I am never eating another protein pack ever again.”

That is, predictably, when Vette saunters into the kitchen. “Hey Gimrizh, Jaesa’s wondering if -” She stops. “Why are you making out with that spoon?”

Gimrizh yanks the spoon out of her mouth. “I - that’s not - Quinn’s simply a good cook.”

“Stars,” Vette rolls her eyes at her. “I should get you fast food sometime, just to see your reaction.”

Normally, she would be suspicious of one of Vette’s suggestions, but she has just discovered something amazing and that honestly takes precedence over just about anything. She’s spent her whole damn life eating mush on Korriban and protein packs in space because she just assumed that it didn’t matter so long as she was consuming nutrients. She has been lied to. How is she only just discovering this now? “Go for it, Vette,” she says, “Whatever the hells you want to feed me, I am down for anything.”

“I have so much power,” Vette teases, “Wanna go find the nearest Galactic Guzzlebusters?”

“I am serious,” Gimrizh points her spoon at Quinn as she stares right at him. “This is the best krething thing I have ever eaten in my entire damn life.”

Quinn’s cheeks flush. “Ah- I- thank you, my lord?”

Vette wiggles her eyebrows at Gimrizh. “So. He can cook,” she whispers suggestively to her.

“Yes I know…? I have eyes…?” Gimrizh is so confused. What does Vette mean? As far as pointless commentary goes, that’s pretty redundant.

“Ugh,” Vette sighs. “I suppose you’ll figure it out eventually.”

“Figure what out?” Gimrizh demands. She glances at Quinn, “Do you know what she’s talking about?”

Quinn shakes his head. “I have no idea, my lord. I’ve never pretended to be able to understand Vette.”

A fair point. “So what did Jaesa want me for?”

“Oh!” Vette grabs her arm, making her tense up like a nexu who’s had its tail pulled. She shoots Quinn a silent look of apology as Vette drags her out of the galley. “She just got a big official datafile from the Sith… Sith Registry Office? Sith Apprenticeship Office? Something like that. It looks confusing as all get out.”

Welcome to the Empire. Beware of flimsiwork.

~*~

“Here.”

Jaesa catches the roll of bandages her new master tosses at her. She tears off two strips and uses them to wrap the hems of her loose pants to her ankles, to keep them from tripping her up during sparring. Nomen Karr sent her to Yonlach to learn the spiritual ways of the force, and her former master had little time to teach her more physical methods. While she is certainly no slouch when it comes to combat, she’s well aware it’s an area of her training that she has neglected.

“Wrap your hands,” Gimrizh says. She holds up her own hands, bandaged and tightly wrapped all across her palm and wrist. “As tight as you can. It keeps your bones and joints in place. Protects you from sprains, minimizes impact on the wrist joint, and helps to lessen the chance of fracturing the metacarpals.”

It feels strange. Jaesa tosses the roll back to Gimrizh and flexes her fingers. Everything feels tied down, in a sense. “You don’t do this in actual combat, do you?”

Gimrizh raises an eyebrow and points a finger to her black fingerless gloves that are sitting on a supply crate. “Compression gloves. They’re designed for the same purpose. You might not need them, since I don’t think that staff of yours is suited for quite the same style of combat as me, but yes - I do this for actual combat.”

“Oh.”

“Lesson one,” she says. A weapon’s rack lines part of the cargo bay’s hull, and she quickly selects a practice staff for Jaesa. “If you wouldn’t do it in combat, never do it in training.”

On that note, she drops the staff to the ground and then kicks it towards Jaesa. It clatters to a alt by her feet.  

“Was that necessary, master?” Jaesa asks, bending down to pick up the staff.

“Would you peacefully hand a weapon over to an enemy?”

“Well, no - “

“Then don’t do it in practice.” Gimrizh pauses as she picks up her two vibroblades to turn to their onlooker. “Vette, are you really going to watch? Don’t you have work to do?”

Vette’s perched on top of a stack of supply crates, her legs crossed. “Yes, and no, respectively.” She waves casually with the hand that isn’t stuck in a bowl of bright orange popcorn. Jaesa can smell the weird cheese-approximate chemicals from ten paces away. “Don’t stop on my account.”

“I don’t mind, master,” Jaesa adds.

“Fine.” Gimrizh twirls her two weapons around, a swish of displaced air as she moves to warm up her wrists. “Attack when you’re ready.”

Jaesa loosens her grip on the staff. Flips it once to get a feel for its weight. It’s so much heavier than her lightsaber, but still lighter than many of the electrostaves she practiced with during her admittedly brief stay on Tython. It’s clearly Imperial in design as well, and she is used to Republic. The grip is longer, and there are more settings, more buttons to change modes. She doesn’t bother with those. Her master has already set it to just give off a slight electric jolt when hit, and Jaesa doesn’t want to ramp up the electricity.

But how to attack? From the side, maybe? Or a frontal charge? She should know. Karr shook her confidence more than she thought.

“Either attack, or don’t,” Gimrizh says, “but don’t waste my time.”

A flash of annoyance flares up inside her and then quells when she realizes that’s exactly what her master is trying to do. “Don’t try and make me angry. I don’t think it’s going to help.”

Gimrizh blinks. “Ah. Sorry. I’ll adjust my training plans with that in mind.”

Before she can second guess herself, Jaesa lunges forward.

It takes two steps to get inside her master’s measure and then a sudden leap to the side to avoid Gimrizh’s swift slash to her head. She cuts up with her staff - Gimrizh bats it to the side - she brings it down with all her strength - Gimrizh slides forward under her guard and smacks one blade against her side.

“Dead,” Gimrizh says calmly.

Stars that was fast.

At her master’s sharp nod, Jaesa begins again.

This time she starts slower. She circles around her master, testing Gimrizh’s defenses with quick blows that she doesn’t fully commit to so as to avoid getting caught too close again. A few tentative strikes later and Gimrizh apparently tires of this, kicking Jaesa straight in the chest and sending her skidding backwards.

Jaesa tightens her fists, digging her fingers into the metal.

Why can’t she do this?

The next engagement is faster, more difficult. Her master has apparently decided to play less passive, and Jaesa finds herself blocking more than she attacks. Normally she’d prefer this, as she tends to fight defensively, relying on powerful force strikes or careful positioning to win actual battles - although she’s never been in a real fight with an opponent of Gimrizh’s caliber. Her experience in combat has been sparring with her fellow Jedi, or it has been defending herself against Tusken raiders on Tatooine, and that is nothing like fighting another force user. No matter what abilities she has, in combat she is outclassed.

Vette is cheering her on whenever she manages to twist her staff around one of her master’s blades, or when she can get a solid strike in, or when she dodges a blow. It’s nice, to have an audience who isn’t Karr barking instructions at her.

Jaesa skids backwards and throws her staff up to blow a descending slash from Gimrizh. Her master lands back on the ground and then ducks low, throwing herself horizontally across the floor as she cuts Jaesa’s legs out from under her, planting a hand on the ground once the hit connects. Jaesa falls flat on her ass and Gimrizh elegantly flips into a neutral stance.

That’s a ridiculous level of flexibility and speed. Jaesa has no idea how she could begin to match that, let alone beat it.

Gimrizh kicks Jaesa’s staff to the side. “I think that’s enough for today.”

“What?” Jaesa scrambles to her feet. “I can last longer, master, I promise.”

“Firstly, you don’t need to call me master.”

Jaesa hesitates before her automatic ‘yes I do’ and thinks about it. “I would… prefer the structure.”

“Alright.” Gimrizh puts her practice blades away before hanging Jaesa’s up. “Regarding practice - you’re not in the right mindset. You’re uncertain and your mind isn’t fully in it. Like this, you’re more likely to hurt yourself than anything else.”

“How do I fix that?”

“That… I don’t know. What I would do is work my frustrations out, often through a punching bag, but I’m not sure that’s going to work for you. Mediation, maybe? Do you have any games that help you focus, anything like that?”

“I - no. I don’t have anything like that.”

Vette raises her hand, the one covered in orange. “I have a suggestion. When I’m annoyed by something, or when I want to think about stuff, I watch trashy holofilms. Stuff with explosions, people’s shirts being strategically torn, and no plots involving anything too complicated. We could have a movie night.”

That actually sounds pretty amazing. Jaesa’s never had a lot of time to do something pointless like that. On Alderaan she was always busy working and any downtime under the Jedi was relegated to additional force studies. Such things were discouraged, even the Republic propaganda pieces that featured more tales of Jedi daring-do than the Order’s own libraries. From what she gathered, nothing about holofilms went against the Jedi Code, and yet they were still discouraged.

Now she’s Sith. She should act like it. “Sure,” she agrees. “That sounds lovely.”

“If you think that would help, I’m not stopping you,” Gimrizh replies with a slight huff.

Jaesa catches Vette’s twinkling gaze and tries not to laugh as the Twi’lek hops off the supply crate and slinks an arm around Gimrizh. “That’s not a very friendly attitude! You’re Jaesa’s teacher now, right? You should participate. We’ll do a ship movie night and you’re going to convince captain stuffy to join us and it’s going to be super friendly.”

“I am not agreeing to this.”

“Sure you are, boss. Team cohesion is important, right?”

“Quinn isn’t going to agree. And I thought you didn’t like him anyways?”

“He’ll agree if you ask. And I don’t, sorta. But I figure if this can help pull that stick out of his ass, it’s worth it.”

Jaesa admittedly hasn’t gotten to know Captain Quinn as well as she’s gotten to know Vette, or her master, but she thought he seemed nice. Er, polite, really, but given that she was an enemy of the Empire two months ago, that’s better than she’d expected. Regardless, she’d like a chance to get to know everyone on the crew better. She is going to be with them for a while, after all.

“Fine,” Gimrizh grumbles, stalking out of the cargo bay. “But you’re not going to be happy.”

~*~

Taris is an overgrown wreck of a planet filled with far too many rakghouls and has a distinct lack of cute animals. Vette is not impressed.

She and Jaesa are currently lounging in the back of one of the Toxic Lake Imperial Garrison’s briefing rooms, listening in on Gimrizh’s boring conversation with Moff Hurdenn and some soldier that’s hanging around, looking like a durasteel wall of muscle. Honestly, if Vette had to pick a dude, that guy would be the epitome of hot. She’s not into men, she’s just got working eyes. Quinn is probably the only one in their party who’s actually paying attention, although Jaesa is giving it a solid effort.

The moff finishes up whatever bits of flattery he’s going for and Gimrizh dismisses him with a sharp wave of her hand.

Vette decides that this could be a bit less professional and puts her feet up on the shiny metal table. Quinn glares at her feet, but screw it, she’s not moving. “Well he was useless,” she comments flippantly. “Unless you were looking to get your ego stroked.”

The muscle-wall snorts. “That’s Hurdenn for you.”

“Not entirely useless,” Gimrizh remarks. “Lieutenant Pierce, wasn’t it? Did you hear what Hurdenn was implying?”

“That he’s looking to get on your good side?” Pierce proposes, clearly not impressed with Hurdenn’s speech. Vette agrees, honestly. The man hadn’t been subtle or dignified.

Quinn cuts in sharply, “All four members of the War Trust would not be drawn to one planet at the same time for anything short of a galactic emergency. If there was one, Imperial Intelligence would have heard about it. This is more political than the moff let on.”

Really? That does make sense, but Vette didn’t pay enough attention to the droning to pick that tidbit out.

Jaesa slowly raises her hand and then sheepishly puts it down. This isn’t the sort of crew that necessitates hand raising. She clears her throat, waiting for Gimrizh’s nod to add, “Captain Quinn is right. I’ve never heard of Republic high command gathering like this outside of Coruscant. While we are losing our foothold on Taris, this planet is a publicity stunt before it’s a war resource. The only person who wants the Resettlement Initiative to succeed badly enough to get the War Trust here is Governor Saresh.”

That’s… not actually a surprise.

While Vette doesn’t pay close attention to politics, for a while a younger version of her had admired then-Senator Saresh. A Twi’lek in the Republic Senate? A former slave Twi’lek no less. Ten years ago Saresh was every young Twi’lek girl’s role model until she’d vanished off to Taris and after the Republic Senate turned one too many blind eyes toward slavery. What Vette remembers of Saresh paints the picture of a woman who knows how to play the game of politics and certainly is persuasive enough to get the War Trust here.

Gimrizh nods slowly. “I’ve heard a lot about Saresh. It fits. We should proceed with that assumption, but let’s not stake any lives on it until we know for certain.”

“If I may, my lord,” Quinn comments, “I suggest we go after General Frellka first. He is the most junior member of the War Trust and thus the most likely to make a crucial mistake. We could use him to trap the other three.”

Vette’s not a total idiot. She can hear how Quinn talks to Gimrizh, she can see that bone-deep respect, if not occasional reverence, in the way he treats her. The two of them need to just be shoved into a closet together for a good twenty minutes, and if Vette had slightly less self preservation, she’d do it herself.

As it is, she likes being able to breath and also enjoys possessing all four limbs.

“So what’s our plan to get to Frellka then?” she asks.

Gimrizh shrugs. “That depends.”

“On what?” Vette says lightly. “The weather?”

The boss inclines her head towards Pierce. “On what the lieutenant can find out for us. What have you got?” she asks, this time addressing the man himself. “You have the advantage of knowing Taris and we don’t. I defer to your experience.”

Pierce raises a scarred up eyebrow. “Frankly? This planet is a mess to map out and we haven’t been here nearly as long as the Republic. What we know about this place doesn’t compare to what they know. My ‘experience’ on Taris doesn’t mean much.”

“What can you do for us then?” Quinn asks scathingly.

“Plenty,” Pierce replies with a glare before turning back to Gimrizh. “Give me twenty-four hours, m’lord. I can get something.”

“I can give you that,” she agrees. “What do you have in mind?”

Pierce scratches his rough beard. “War Trust hasn’t shown their faces. But they need supplies. Weapons. Intel. Those are all things we can track. Find who works for them, pick one off, and lean on ‘em. Hard.”

So. Torture. Not exactly Vette’s favorite thing.

“A solid plan.” Gimrizh gives Vette and Quinn a look. “If you need assistance, Vette here is a very accomplished slicer, and my captain specializes in information analysis. I’m sure they’d be happy to help.”

The sour expression on Quinn’s face says exactly the opposite.

Pierce shakes his head. “Thanks, but I’m good. I’ve got a bunch of guys in the field already. Don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen, you know?”

Oh no. Less work. Vette’s heartbroken.

~*~

It isn’t as though Malavai doesn’t trust Lieutenant Pierce - actually no, it is.

The man is an unknown asset and this is one of, if not the most crucial mission they have ever undertaken. Malavai doesn’t want to place such an important task in the hands of someone who’s track record is either classified or filled with long periods of being a glorified bodyguard to Moff Hurdenn. It’s not personal, although he’s not fond of the lieutenant’s way of speaking to Lord Gimrizh - brashness that borders on the line of disrespect. Beyond that it’s just a technical risk analysis.

Gimrizh hops up to sit on top of his desk. “Double checking the lieutenant’s work?”

A series of data maps are splayed out across the terminal and he quickly minimizes them, as Gimrizh just put her hand through one of the holo projections. “There isn’t actually a lot I can do to track down Frellka with as little information as we were given.”

A small, tight smile crosses her face. “As if that would stop you.”

No, but it does inconvenience him. If they had a more complete record of the lieutenant’s skill set and mission history, he would be far more comfortable with letting the man do things his way instead of needing oversight. And even then, Malavai dislikes having no control over the situation.

When he doesn’t reply right away, Gimrizh bends down until her torso is almost falling off the desk as she rummages through the drawers. This isn’t his desk, he’s just borrowing it, so he has no idea what she’s looking for. And her… flexibility is rather distracting.

Eventually she pulls out a stack of cards. “Do you know how to play sabacc?”

“It’s a criminal’s game, my lord,” he says, feeling almost offended, “It’s hardly appropriate for someone of my station - or yours, for that matter.”

She sets the cards down on top of the desk and smirks at him, “I’m not hearing a ‘no’. Teach me?”

With a muffled sigh, he resigns himself to his fate. The stack of cards that she’s procured is a very used deck, and he’s actually a bit disappointed to find that it’s not missing any cards as that would have given him a convenient excuse. While he might know how to play the game, he’s not particularly good at it. A large portion of the game is based off of chance, not strategy. It’s easy enough to pick up though, probably one of the reasons that it’s so popular.

He briefly explains the rules to her and they play a quick round to see if she’s got it. She loses the first round spectacularly. At her insistence, he deals again and lets her take her time selecting her cards and making plays.

“So, what do you know about Frellka?” she asks after a couple of rounds, still playing intently.

The sudden switch in topics causes him to pause for a moment. “General Frellka is one of the highest ranking members in the Republic’s strategic high command, as are most of the War Trust. Few battles during the war can be directly attributed to him however, as his area of expertise mostly lies in overwatch, not direct command. He’s still a clever strategist, and he does have a personal guard. I doubt that he will pose any challenge to you, my lord.”

She seems to mull over this information and then picks up another card. “I suppose I won’t be concerned then.”

“You made the right decision to go after Frellka first, my lord.”

“I might have made the call, but I rely on you and the crew more than you know.” She twirls her card between her fingers with a light laugh. “Is this me? In the Republic’s eyes, I’m sure.”

Malavai looks at the card that she’s playing with. It’s the face card titled ‘the evil one’. A stylized figure with monstrous features and a fanged snarl is painted on the card in faded reds and greens. “It’s merely a card, my lord, it doesn’t represent anyone. It’s also unlikely to provide you with a winning hand.”

Her hand of cards is tossed down on the table and she counts them, “Eleven. Damn, you’re right.” She leans over and peers at his hand, a negative nineteen.

Her fingers elegantly drag over each of his cards, her lips forming silent numbers as she counts them. He finds his gaze drawn to her even as he tries to look away. There’s a fluidity to her movements that he’s noticed in combat before, but it’s always there. As though she’s always only a heartbeat away from seamlessly leaping into a fight. He’s seen it break before, seen the way she can be stiff and uncomfortable. But the elegance is still there, underneath everything else.

“Deal again,” she demands, and he is happy to obey.

They complete two more rounds during which Gimrizh loses both times before they’re interrupted by her communicator.

She skims the message. “Pierce has got something for us. Want to come and see?”

He feels unreasonably irritated with the man for intruding, but it is for the sake of their mission. “Of course, my lord.” The deck of cards gets subtly slipped into Gimrizh’s pocket as the two of them stand. “Lead the way.”

The garrison has a series of cells in a complex under the command building. Short term, according to the information packet Malavai read before they arrived. Taris is hardly an Imperial stronghold and most prisoners are shipped off planet within a short time frame unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Two guards are standing by the doors of a small, windowless room. They salute as Gimrizh passes and stand aside to allow them in.

Inside is a Republic scout. The man is coughing up blood and tied to a chair, his leg clearly broken.

Pierce paces in front of him, and then turns to salute Gimrizh when he sees her. “Got a scout for you, m’lord,” he says. “Hasn’t said much, but I’ve got him in a good state for you to take over. If you’d like, of course. I can get a couple guys in, get some thiohex in him - “

Gimrizh waves him off. “That won’t be necessary. I can take it from here.”

Intrigued, Malavai watches closely as Gimrizh approaches the prisoner. She holds up a finger, drags it back and forth across the man’s eyes. His tracking skills are lacking, his eyes can’t focus. Perhaps a blow to the head, or maybe he’s lost more blood than Malavai can see easily. Either way, it means his cognitive functions are probably impaired as well. Does that make the force’s mind manipulation abilities easier?

After that she kneels down so that she’s eye to eye with the prisoner and rests her fingers against his temples.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Yonath,” the prisoner replies, slowly, as if she’s dragging each word out of his mind forcefully.

She nods. “Good, thank you. Tell me about Frellka, Yonath.”

“I - I can’t… It hurts…”

“I know. Tell me about Frellka, and we’ll make the pain stop.”

“No I… I can’t - I don’t know - “

“You don’t know where he is?”

The prisoner sobs in relief. “Yes. I don’t know - he never - I’m not high enough to know…”

“You’re doing well, Yonath. Tell me how to find Frellka.”

His face scrunches up into a grimace. “No - “

Pierce steps in with a heavy baton and breaks the man’s right hand. A scream of pain tears through the interrogation room, and even standing as far back as he is, Malavai can’t help but wince at the noise. Advanced interrogation was never his specialty, he wasn’t trained for it, and as such he isn’t used to this sort of thing.

After that there’s no more protests, and the Republic scout gives them everything they need to know in a series of sobs and gasps.

~*~

Vette is perched in a tree.

It’s not actually a tree, more a group of thick branches that have invaded the crumbling remains of a building, covering it with leaves and making it look like some sort of tree abomination. It’s good cover, though. She’s been up here for almost an hour, fiddling with her blasters, playing with the commlink. Twenty minutes ago she’d been amusing herself by sending chirping bird noises over the comm channel, but then Quinn had told her to shut up - which did nothing - and then Gimrizh had heard and told her that she’s distracting Jaesa. So no more bird noises, and there’s been radio silence since.

They’re all spread out at different points in the Brell Sediment area, three teams planning to ambush three different walkers. Regrettably, because her sithyness wants this done quickly and efficiently, the teams have been formed based on strength. So Gimrizh is by herself, Jaesa’s by herself, and Vette is stuck with captain stuffy.

At least they aren’t stuck up in the same damn tree. This is Vette’s tree, and she’s called it. Quinn is hiding behind an outcropping shelf of concrete, some leftover thing from a ruin. She can’t tell, everything on this planet is a ruin.

She can feel the vibrations as the Republic walker slowly makes it march towards where they’re waiting to ambush it. Quinn first alerted her that the caravan’s approaching about five minutes ago, and she personally thinks that the thing is just taking forever to finally show up. She just wants to blow this joint, steal a transponder, and head back to somewhere with a roof and a cantina.

Fifty seconds,” Quinn says through the comm.

Finally. “Yeah, yeah, let’s blast em and run.” She stands up in her tree and grabs the grenade she’s been lugging around. They aren’t her usual fair, but large metal things call for heavy explosives.

The huge clanker of a machine makes it way around the bend. Vette clambers down the chunks of vine and rubble till she’s an inch from the ground. She counts down the seconds in her head, priming the grenade and aiming for the walker’s legs. Maybe she can blow up one of it’s legs entirely and it can hop around like some kind of mad monkey-lizard?

The walker moves right between her and Quinn.

Two grenades roll out and explode right in the clanker’s underbelly, a roar of fire and noise bursting through the quiet like a firecracker. It’s legs blast outwards, the main body collapsing onto the ground, screeching as the durasteel gives out. It’s kind of unfortunate that there’s no gleaming golden pile of credits waiting inside, because otherwise that might be a very beautiful sight. Blowing the place is still awesome, but she misses the honest rewards of living life on the wrong side of the law.

She also misses not having to fight soldiers every damn day.

A half dozen Republic soldiers pour out of the caravan, some stumbling or injured from the force of the explosion.

Show time.

Vette flips her blasters in her hands and rolls out from under her cover, coming up on her knees to pin two soldiers in the head with the same number of bolts. One jumps over the two bodies to come after her, blaster rifle pointed straight at her chest. She tosses a flash bang into his eyes and pistol whips him right in the temples while he’s out of it. He goes down and she kicks his blaster to the side, just to be safe.

On the other side of the fight, she can see Quinn taking advantage of the distraction she’s caused to shoot a couple of the remaining men. Vette ducks a blast from the last soldier and peppers him with a hail of bolts till he falls to the ground like the rest.

She can hear the whirr of the droid before she sees it. A tall, clunky, defender droid, carrying something that looks more like a short range missile launcher than a blaster slowly chugs its way to the door of the caravan. There’s a humm as the weapon powers up. Vette starts to run to the side of the walker and desperately checks her pockets for anything that could put a dent in that thing - her blaster’s won’t do a whole lot of good.

Quinn tosses an electric charge beneath the droid's shields, sending out a surge of power that wrecks the thing’s circuitry and immobilises it. Well. Alright. She can work with that.

She flips up the walker’s gangplank, gets behind the droid, and puts a bolt right in the tangle of wires and circuits between two armoured plates on its neck. The neck section burns as it’s wrenched in half. All she has to do is put her blasters away, grab the headpiece, and yank. It comes off in her hands with little to no resistance.

“Now, where would that transponder be?” Vette asks.

She drop kicks the droid’s head out the gangplank right as Quinn enters the caravan, just missing him by a couple of feet.

The annoyed look he gives her when the head sails past him is more amusing than anything else. He heads to a control panel in the back of the walker and starts to pry open the covering to expose the machine guts inside. “A standard Republic walker normally carries their transponder inside here,” he comments.

“Sweet,” she pushes him to the side. “Move over, let me do this.”

He looks so offended, it’s ridiculous. “I have extensively studied the schematics of Republic -”

“Yeah, yeah, you read boring technical shit and can fix our ship up and all that jazz.” She waves him off and shoves her fingers into the tangle of wires. “This is stealing a transponder though, and I’m the best person here for that kind of job.” She pulls out a power coupling, tossing it casually over her shoulder before diving back in. “Unless you’ve secretly been living a double life as the galaxy’s most wanted thief?”

“Hardly,” he sharply replies.

She uncouples the base of the transponder from a thick pinlock that’s been shoddily welded into the main plate. Standard issue always seems to be rubbish. The last of the loose wires get ripped out of the way and she pulls out the shiny, cylindrical transponder. “Ta-da!”

He holds up his commlink and opens the main channel. “My lord, we’ve retrieved the third transponder.”

Good,” Gimrizh’s staticy voice says through the comm. “Head back to the Toxic Lake Garrison and we’ll rendezvous there.

At last, heading back to someplace with a semblance of civilization. She twirls the transponder around a bit before sticking it in her belt. “Well that was fun.”

Quinn looks at her like she’s insane. “We were just in a blaster fight.”

“Yup,” she repeats blandly. “Fun.”

~*~

“Give me a minute to retrace their routes,” Lieutenant Pierce is saying, plugging the stolen transponders into a computer terminal, “see where they converge.”

"Go ahead," Lord Gimrizh agrees. She stirs a large mug of instant caf with her finger and chugs the whole thing.

It’s getting to be rather late at night, on standard Imperial time anyways, and Malavai is just as tired as the rest of them. He’s fine, of course, although he is hoping that Vette will stop hoarding all the damn caf so that he can make himself a cup. The five of them are grouped around the conference table, the lieutenant prodding redundantly at the already running program. Vette’s leaning on Jaesa Willsaam and the both of them are consuming heavy amounts of caf.

“Triangulation complete,” the lieutenant says at last. “We got Frellka.”

Gimrizh leans out of her chair without actually standing up, trying to get a look at the terminal. “Where is that?”

Malavai gets a good look at the map and comes up with an answer before the other soldier can so much as open his mouth. “Lower area of the Brell Sediment, my lord. It’s a few dozen klicks south-east of the Garrison. Perhaps an hour or so away.”

“What he said,” the lieutenant agrees, reluctantly though, as if he really wants to contradict something Malavai said but can’t. “It’s an old mining area. For a while they were trying to resettle that area - make it into some big public center or something like that. We beat the pubs out of there a few months back.”

They examine the map for a moment before Gimrizh sighs, “Alright. Quinn, Vette, I need you two to get me a tracker. The smaller the better, although it will need full planetary range. Can you do that?”

“Right away, my lord,” Malavai replies. Although he’s not a fan of working with Vette, that job is an easier one. It shouldn’t be too difficult.

“Thank you. We don’t want Frellka to get away - I’ll head out as soon as you’ve got that tracker ready.”

“I can accompany you, my lord,” Malavai offers. He’ll be fine, he can just snag a couple of stim pills before heading out. Someone needs to watch his lord’s back after all, and he doesn’t quite trust the lieutenant to do so. Neither would he trust an exhausted Vette or Jaesa, both of whom look worn out, although at least Jaesa maintains some measure of composure.

She pauses and that slight hesitation is all he needs to know she’ll turn him down. “I think it would be best if I went in alone. That’s not a ‘no’, I’d certainly appreciate assistance getting into Republic territory, but I’m not sure what it will be like when we arrive.”

He tells himself very firmly that he won’t question her in front of the lieutenant and nods.

Vette clears her throat. “This is Republic territory, right?”

“Yes,” Gimrizh replies.

“And Frellka doesn’t know you’re coming?”

“Not as far as we know.”

“And the one who got the War Trust here is probably Saresh?”

“Do you have a point?”

Vette grins maniacally, and if they were on board Horizon Malavai would feel a need to check to make sure she hasn’t released some sort of wild animal into his quarters. As it is, he’s more worried for Gimrizh’s safety than anything else. “Not only do I have a point,” Vette says, “I also have an idea. Boss, Jaesa, how well can you act?”

~*~

The coordinates drop Gimrizh in the middle of what looks like an attempted resettled apartment complex. What is left of the building is half old-bombed ruin and half new-bombed ruin. If there were any civilians shoved into this area out of a desperate desire to reclaimed what should be a condemned building, they have long since fled.

A tiny comm sits behind her ear. She can’t do anything with it, not really, but Vette and Quinn can hear everything she hears and she can hear them. Unlike her usual tactical comm, she can’t get any other information through the earpiece, but it’ll have to do. A small tracker sits inside one of her many pockets, neatly tucked away in a datastick. Naga Sadow’s lightsaber is hidden behind her back, clipped horizontally across her belt while Quorian’s blade is displayed prominently at her side.

Ugh she hates this robe. Beige is a hideous color.

Remember,” Vette says through the comms. “Be friendly.

This is the worst thing she’s ever agreed to. She’s never doing it again. She uses the force to push what remains of the door to the side and steps into the building with her hands up.

A couple of nearby guards freeze. Their hands clench around the triggers on their blasters. “Who - who are you?”

Gimrizh grits her teeth and tries to look helpless. “Please - don’t shoot! I’m Jedi Knight Kerin Girik.”

“A Jedi?” One of the guards lowers his weapon and takes a step closer. She can see confusion in his eyes, but not suspicion anymore. Good. “How did you get this location? We weren’t informed of your arrival.”

“I was sent by the Council, please let me speak to Frellka, I can confirm everything to him.” She looks pointedly down at her lightsaber. “You can disarm me if you feel it necessary.”

With a sheepish expression the guard takes the weapon from her belt. He turns it on, only for a moment, and sighs in relief when he sees the blue blade. What an idiot. The color can be faked, or stolen, it is not a marker of allegiance by law only by custom. “Sorry about this. I’m sure Frellka will return it once we have more information. This is a pretty secure op, so we have to be tough. Even with Jedi, I guess.”

“Of course,” she replies. He and the other guard are leading her further into the building, towards a large open area. “Any measures are necessary to protect the Republic. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Over the commlink, Vette makes a retching noise and Gimrizh has never agreed with her more.

A makeshift command table is set up in the open atrium that the guards lead her too. Unlike much of the complex, this area has a fully closed roof, which, despite the collapsing walls and overgrown foliage cracking the floor open, makes it one of the safest spots here. It’ll keep the general from being caught by any Harrowers passing overhead and it’s probably enforced with some sort of blast shield to protect from bombings. Not a bad location, she thinks. Well picked, Frellka.

The man himself is surrounded by a series of Republic military officials. She recognizes two captain rank badges and three sergeants, along with a full dozen guards posted at the entrances and exits.

Frellka, despite being the newest member of the War Trust, is probably around forty years old, his hair starting to grey at the temples and harsh lines around his eyes. “Who are you?” he demands as she enters.

Her guard hands over the lightsaber and Frellka instantly checks for that Jedi blue.

Then he pulls out his datapad. Gimrizh tries to get a closer look without being obvious about it. The pommel of her lightsaber is unscrewed - Quorian’s had always had an easy way to disassemble it, as do most of the Jedi lightsabers she’s collected. Oh shit . All the Jedi blades she’s taken have a slightly larger circuit board than Sith blades. She never questioned it but - Frellka scans the chip.

Fuck.

His datapad spits out a read as Frellka reassembles the weapon.

“Hm.” He tosses Gimrizh’s lightsaber back to her and she makes sure to fumble a bit as she clips it back onto her belt. “The serial checks out - hasn’t been reported stolen or anything. It’s good to see a Jedi out here.”

Bless you, Quorian.

“I’m Jedi Knight Kerin Girik,” Gimrizh repeats. She slowly reaches into her cloak, holding it open just enough for them to see what she’s reaching for but not her Sith lightsaber. She retrieves a datastick. “Yulair Rineth sent me. This is for Governor Saresh and the rest of the War Trust to see.”

Frellka reaches out, taking the datastick from her and frowning curiously at it. “What’s on it?”

“I don’t know - but I also came to warn you.”

His eyes widen. “Warn me?”

“I’m not sure if you knew, but your caravans were ambushed. I didn’t arrive in time to stop it, I just saw what the Empire took. Sir, they’ve stolen the transponders. They probably know where you are right now. You need to evacuate before the Sith come to kill you.”

He curses something foul, spitting on the ground in anger. “How the hell did the Empire clue in on this so fast? Who did they send, did you see who attacked my men?”

Okay,"  Vette instructs, “Make sure you keep eye contact and swallow hard. Sell this.”

Gimrizh does as told and admits. “Jaesa Willsaam. I think. It was hard to see her, but I think it was her.”

“That’s - “ One of Frellka’s captains speaks up. “Er, she’s a former Jedi, sir. Padawan to Nomen Karr, the war hero. She dropped off our radar a number of months ago and it was suspected that she defected to the Empire. Caused a bit of a scandal, but we didn’t have confirmation. Until now, I suppose.”

“Shit,” Frellka mutters. “Pack everything up and roll out. If some traitor is coming to kill me, I’m not going to make it easy for her.”

Gimrizh watches as the Republic crew quickly and efficiently dismantles their command post. A corner of the atrium hides an armoured personnel carrier and two land speeders with assault blasters mounted to the tops. The scattered pieces of furniture are ignored and the only items being transported are datapads, weapons, and supply crates. As much as she hates the Republic, she can’t help being slightly impressed with the tight ship Frellka runs.

“Thank you for coming when you did,” Frellka says to her. “Taris is a shit show to fight in, and Jedi help is greatly appreciated.”

She tries to look modest. “No, thank you. I think the Taris project is a good thing.”

He snorts distanfully. “It’s a publicity stunt. Saresh is planning something for this place, some sort of weapons facilities. That’s the only useful thing that is going to come out of here, in my opinion.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you here?”

“Like I said. Saresh is going to turn this place into a powerhouse during the war to come, and we need to ensure that we’re overseeing the plans. If we can kick the Empire off Taris, it’ll be both good publicity and also an actual krething win for the Republic.”

New weapons facilities don’t sound like a good development for the Empire. Although given how much raw metal Taris has, it’s not a bad idea. Saresh must have been damn persuasive if she got the War Trust here. A move like this, if it works, could get her voted in as the krething Chancellor if she plays her cards right.

Two minutes to go, my lord,” Quinn informs her, his voice a comforting presence in her ear. “If you can keep him talking, we are recording this conversation.”

Gimrizh sticks by Frellka’s side, helping him move supply crates. “I was told that Saresh got all four members of the War Trust here. Isn’t it a bit… dangerous to meet here? The Empire bombed Taris before - “They didn’t, not really, but the Republic blames the Empire regardless and she has a part to play. “ - aren’t you worried about them doing it again to get the four of you?”

“No.” Frellka laughs. “The Empire has their own forces here and it’s too early for them to make such a big sacrifice play. Oh I’m sure they’ve got a number of despicable tactics up their sleeves, but we won’t see them until the Empire is in a position to risk them.”

She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, as if in embarrassment. “Of course. So Saresh didn’t need to jump any hoops to get you here?”

“Sure she did. She’s a persuasive woman.” Frellka raises an eyebrow and she thinks that’s probably the line she needs to toe. “Got an interest in politics?”

“Ah, a little.”

“We’re in position, my lord.

Gimrizh drops the supply crate and dramatically widens her eyes. “I sense something!”

Boom.

An Imperial cannon shoots down the far wall, sending chunks of rubble flying and kicking up smoke and debris into a cloud that makes the Republic forces choke. The soldiers leap to arms, getting into position in front of Frellka and the vehicles. No shots are fired just yet. The smoke hasn’t cleared, and there’s no visual on who exactly is attacking.

Then an invisible hand throws a chunk of concrete to the side and Jaesa steps into the atrium with her lightsaber drawn.

“That’s - “ Gimrizh makes her voice tremble. “Jaesa Willsaam.”

Frellka’s already got his blaster in hand. “Shit. Retreat!”

She pushes him towards the armored transport and ignites her blue lightsaber. “Go! I’ll hold her off while you escape!”

There’s a brief look of pity and then his face hardens. He rushes into the vehicle.

To keep the show up, Gimrizh runs towards her apprentice with her blade drawn and ready to attack.

Their fight is brief as Frellka and his men escape, and within a few moments Gimrizh lets Jaesa throw her to the side and pretends to be unconscious. At least everything’s going according to plan, although if they have to do this next time, she’d prefer not to play the part of an idiot Jedi.

The Imperial soldiers Jaesa brought with her mop up the Republic men.

Once the bodies have all hit the ground Gimrizh gets up. “Next time,” she complains, tugging the cloak off and dropping it onto the ground. “I’m not wearing the beige.”

Jaesa smiles at her. “Sorry, master.”

“Eh. How are you?”

That makes her apprentice tense up. “I… I don’t like attacking Republic soldiers.”

“You did it earlier, to get the transponder.”

“I didn’t kill any of them. This time… I didn’t get to let them live. They died anyways, regardless of my actions.”

“People die, Jaesa. They are always going to die. In war, especially.” Gimrizh sighs. She straightens out her rumpled clothes and and tries to think of what to say. “I am not exactly a fan of killing, but I do it because it is necessary, and there will always be things I have to do that I do not like. I kill because Baras orders me to do it, or because they will kill me first if I let them, or because they will kill those I care about. I’m not Baras, and I won’t force you. You’re new to the Empire, and to my crew, so I also understand if that last reason doesn’t apply to you.”

Jaesa shifts from one foot to the other. “I like Vette. I don’t want her to die. I think Captain Quinn is amiable enough. And for what it’s worth, master, I don't want you to die either. I feel as though there is so much more from you to learn.”

Well that isn’t slightly unnerving at all. “That’s… sweet of you, Jaesa. But you shouldn’t feel as though obligation to me forces you to kill.”

Jaesa shakes her head. “I don’t.”

“Oh. Well. That’s good.”

She takes a deep breath, and then asks. “Does it get easier?”

“Fighting alongside the Empire? I’d say so.” Gimrizh replies lightly. “In all seriousness, I don’t know. That’s up to you, and my experience is completely different from yours.”

“I… see.”

Gimrizh knows that she doesn’t, not really. That’s alright. Jaesa will either find her way to live with being on the Empire’s side, or she won’t, but either way, Gimrizh can’t force her. Her impression of Karr had been someone who shoved Jaesa around without concern for her wellbeing. Gimrizh won’t do that to her. That distance, more than perhaps anything else, would push Jaesa away. The Empire is different from the Republic. Gimrizh has to prove that. They’re better than the Republic. She has to be better than that.

She leads Jaesa back to the Imperial walkers surrounding the building. “Find a reason to fight. As cliche as it might sound, that will drive you. Anger and passion keep you going when there’s nothing left.”

Jaesa’s smile is faint, but distinctly there. “The Jedi preach compassion yet they forbid true passion, love, and care beyond the vaguest concern for our fellow beings. I suppose I really am no longer a Jedi. I’d rather fight for what I love and embrace it. I was done pretending a long time ago.”

“And can that motivate you to stand alongside Imperials?”

“It must. I think I simply… need a little time to adjust. This is all so new to me and I still have so many questions that are unanswered.”

If Jaesa is hoping to find answers on the battlefield, she’ll be sorely disappointed. That might work for Gimrizh, but she gets the distinct impression that Jaesa is far more in tune with the spiritual side of the force than she will ever be. A younger version of herself is disappointed by this - that her apprentice will always outstrip her in this area. As she is now, she has learned to live with the fact that she will never excel in anything outside of combat.

Um,” Vette says quietly - unusually quiet for her. “I’ll delete the recording of that bit, shall I?”

Jaesa’s cheek turn an embarrassed red. “Thank you.”

Let’s not mention it.”

With a sigh, Gimrizh gives the order to retreat. They could take this command center, since the War Trust found a use for it. At the end of the day however, it’s too far into Republic territory, and unless they need it for the exact same use Frellka did, it won’t be of any use to them. It’d just be a supply drain while they wait for it to become relevant again.

“Quinn,” she says once she and Jaesa are safely inside an Imperial walker. “How’s the tracker working?”

Perfectly, my lord. We’ll be able to track Frellka to the rest of the War Trust.”

~*~

One of the things that Foris Pierce hates the most are dumbass commanding officers sticking their noses into things and messing everything up. Especially when it’s his neck - or the necks of his men - on the line. Why does some stiff shirted man who sits in a chair and watches while real men go out to fight get to make decisions about who lives and who dies?

“Thanks to me, Lord Gimrizh,” Moff Hurdenn is saying. He’s all puffed up trying to impress the Sith, like he’s actually done something good instead of fucking everything up. “General Durant’s personal battalion will not be joining him wherever he is.”

The Sith doesn’t seem to share the Moff’s happiness. “Why didn’t you plant a tracker on the battalion? Why did you decide to act without informing me, when you were aware that I and my crew had already requested use of your troops to implement a plan of your own? Did you not consider that our ideas of how to go about this might conflict?”

Well, she’s not as stupid as most of the higher-ups then. That’s a relief. Foris isn’t exactly a fan of working underneath someone who doesn’t understand a whit of proper wartime techniques. He’d thought she was a better sort from her plan to trail Frellka, but it’s nice to see it confirmed. And to watch Hurdenn get a well-deserved dressing down.

“I tried to put one of my black ops pals on the battalion’s trail. We could have discretely followed them to Durant’s position,” he informs her.

“Then why the hells didn’t you?” she demands.

Foris jerks his head towards the Moff. “Moff Hurdenn grounded me.”

She turns her ire away from him and onto the Moff. “Let me guess. You thought that you could send a squad in, kill a few relatively insignificant pubs, interfere with my mission, override my authority in this instance, and I would somehow be impressed with your work? I’m aware that a Sith Lord does not rank above a Moff precisely, but you know my orders come from Darth Vengean. Are you trying to go toe to toe with a member of the Dark Council?”

“I thought -” Hurdenn tries to explain, “I thought it would be best to prevent General Durant from gaining any more reinforcements. You are hunting the man, after all, I thought it prudent to thin his forces for you.”

The Twi’lek girl lounging in the back of the room muffles a laugh at this point. She nudges the human girl next to her and quietly points at the Sith, as if to say ‘watch how this turns out’.

Apparently what Hurdenn said had been entirely the wrong thing to say. The Sith pulls herself up and manages to make the Moff cower, even though she’s the shortest person in the room. Her voice is icy as anything as she stares down the Moff. “Are you insinuating that I cannot handle a simple battalion of pubs? I neither need nor desire your assistance in wiping out Durant’s men. You clearly are lacking a few important brain cells, so I shall make myself transparently clear. That was a rash and foolish move. You will withdraw any troops you have left in the area and allow Lieutenant Pierce and his men to see what they can find. Am I understood?”

“Yes, well. Of course,” Hurdenn immediately acquiesces. “I’ll make it so immediately, my lord.”

“Good.” She points at the door, “Now go and do your damn job.”

The Moff scrambles out of the room as fast as he can without actually running. Despite not having worked with a lot of Sith in the past, Foris has to admit, he’s starting to think that this one isn’t half bad. Sure, he’d trade a dozen Sith for his back ops squad in a heartbeat, but she’s got a decent enough head on her shoulders. Not a bad person to work under. He’s certainly been stuck taking orders from worse in the past.

“We’ll get something on Durant,” Foris promises her.

She suddenly doesn’t look as intimidating once she looks back at him. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I apologize for Hurdenn’s interference. Your plan was sound and probably would have been successful. Having Frellka tracked is all we technically need and yet it still would be helpful to have both on our radar. Speaking of… Quinn, how is Frellka doing?”

“On the move” the captain from her crew reports, pulling up a map on a data reader. “After his evacuation, we were able to track him from the Brell area to here.”

The group moves to take a look at the holo map. Foris recognizes the area, he’s run patrols nearby often enough. It’s a tough place to go into.

“Excellent,” the Sith says, “Tell me what I’m looking at.”

The captain enlarges the image and rotates it to lie flat. “It’s an area of the Tularan Marsh, my lord, a series of tunnels and ruined pipe works from Old Taris. It appears that the Republic, or at least General Frellka, has made an evacuation route out of the tunnels.”

Foris crosses his arms and frowns at the map. He’s lost good men in those tunnels, members of his squad that got mauled by rakghouls. The lucky ones died from the animal attacks, the unlucky ones got the disease and had to be put down. “That’s rakghoul territory,” he informs them, “those tunnels are crawling with the beasts.”

“I admit,” the Sith says, staring at the map, “I don’t know much about the rakghoul disease. Can it be treated?”

Foris shrugs, “Not really. If you sterilize the wound immediately, you might live, but most fights don’t really allow for that much time. The beasts tend to swarm. .”

“That’s not - “ The captain clears his throat. “Frellka has only been in the area for a few hours. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll remain there long enough for us to ambush him. My guess is that these evacuation routes are used to throw the Empire off his trail. My lord, I recommend that we wait until he settles in one area - “

The Twi’lek punches the air lazily and the captain glares at her for interrupting. “Woo-hoo! No rakghouls!”

~*~

Jaesa circles a training dummy in the Crater Command Base. She and Vette, along with Moff Hurdenn and his contingent of Imperial soldiers transferred here a few hours ago. They’re slowly following Frellka back into Republic territory, waiting for the man to bring them the rest of the War Trust like puffer pigs to the slaughter. She doesn’t want to have to destroy the peace that the galaxy has enjoyed all these years, but she’s also well aware that as far as peace goes, this one is particularly violent.

Maybe it will be better for the galaxy to return to war and rebuild itself from the ashes. The Republic is corrupt, the Empire is iron-fisted. Maybe things would get better if it all tears down. Maybe Jaesa could do more without the Treaty. She could make strides without being constrained by the Treaty and the Empire would be unlikely to look too closely at any more insidious actions Jaesa commits during a time of war. A Jedi would support peace no matter what yet she’s not a Jedi anymore. A Sith would support war above all else, conflict for conflict’s sake.

She does not believe that there is much good that comes with war. Yet they have little choice in the matter, Vengean has decreed that there shall be war and if they do not deliver on that missive, then someone else will. And Jaesa shall lose her window of opportunity. Is it not prudent to attempt to make the best of a bad situation?

How practical can she bring herself to be about this.

Her training staff strikes out at the dummy, a blow to the head, a jab in the heart.

Vette’s sitting in the corner with her legs crossed on top of a table. A datapad rests in her lap, her finger brushing the surface as she slowly flips through pages of something - a magazine perhaps. Her lips are scrunched up in concentration, almost a frustrated pout, as she reads through what must be a particularly irritating section.

“Do you think that we’re doing the right thing?” Jaesa asks, tapping the dummy’s neck before withdrawing to a defensive stance.

Vette looks up from her datapad and ponders it for a moment. “Eh. The Treaty of Coruscant is coming apart anyways. I try not to think about it.”

“Can a war be an opportunity?”

“I - “ Vette fully turns her attention to Jaesa. “I suppose. What are you thinking?”

“I’ve been looking for some sort of truth, something more to the force that seems so close yet remains out of my reach. Whatever that is, it requires me joining the Sith Order. Despite that, I don’t agree with a lot of the Empire’s laws. The constant military oversight, the complete lack of democratic input, the - “

“The slavery?” Vette offers.

She nods firmly. “And the slavery. But with war comes change, and we can use that to change the Empire for the better. What plan does Master Gimrizh have?”

Vette laughs in bitter amusement. “She doesn’t have a plan.”

“Really?”

“I mean you’ll have to ask the boss, but not as far as I know.”

“Yes. Ask me what?”

Jaesa turns sharply on her heels to see with her eyes what the force has already confirmed to her. Her master is standing in the doorway with Captain Quinn just behind her. Gimrizh steps into the room and closes the door behind her, stopping in front of the training dummy to examine the damage that Jaesa’s done.

“I was speaking with Vette about what we’re going to do once the Treaty of Coruscant is broken. I believe that we can use the conflict to change the Empire for the better - however Vette said that you have no such goal.”

Her master does a double take. She’s utterly stunned by what Jaesa’s just said, a whirlwind of confusion, insecurity, and also fear hitting Jaesa through the fragile mental bond they share. “I- no,” Gimrizh tells her, almost choking on her words, “I don’t have a plan. There’s never been a plan. I’m not - not trying to change the Empire at all.” Gimrizh takes a step back, trying to put some distance between them. “My plan? My plan is to keep myself alive. Keep my crew alive. That’s it.”

That can’t be right, it just can’t be. “But that’s wrong,” is all that comes out of her mouth. It’s wrong to sit by as the Empire commits atrocities. Plain and simple. If that’s what Gimrizh decides to do, Jaesa won’t change her mind, but she also won’t sit still herself.

“I don’t care,” Gimrizh says - and it’s a lie. “I care about keeping the people I care about alive, and that’s it.”

Captain Quinn clears his throat sharply. “Lord Gimrizh is a valuable resource in fighting the war. Relegating her to a political role doesn’t make sense at this time, and it would be an uphill battle regardless, given…” He glances at Gimrizh quickly before finishing, “given that she is neither human nor Sith pureblood.”

Gimrizh nods. “Exactly. I can’t afford to play politics like my master does.”

Jaesa doesn’t need to use her power to read any deeper than that. Her master’s lie sits heavy on her heart like a mouthful of ashes on her tongue. She knows that her master doesn’t truly believe that, knows that there’s mercy in her and compassion for those who have been destroyed by the Empire. Both her power tell her this, and the fact that she, her parents, and both her former masters are still alive. There’s a wall of fear around her master, blocking any ambition, any goals beside survival.

“Whatever you believe is best, master,” Jaesa replies quietly, backing down. She can’t change her master’s mind in a day. “I have faith in you.”

“I’m just trying to keep you all alive,” Gimrizh repeats, “That’s all.”

Vette tosses an arm around her shoulders, “Well you’ve done a bang-up job so far. We’re all still alive. Score.”

While Jaesa sees the resumption of the war as something negative that they can use to their advantage, Gimrizh sees it only as one more death trap that she must steer them through.

“Don’t worry, master,” Jaesa assures her, “I can help the Empire if you can’t. And either way I will follow you.”

Vette picks up her datapad again and uses it to wave Gimrizh over. “Speaking of change in the Empire… Someone is talking shit about you.”

“What?” Gimrizh grabs the datapad and skims it. Quinn steps up behind her and reads over her shoulder as she tilts the datapad for him to see. Although Jaesa too is curious as to what Vette found, she can’t reasonably shove her way in as well.

Quinn is the first to finish reading. “This - “ He glares at the datapad. “This is absurd.”

“What exactly is it?” Jaesa asks.

Her master doesn’t respond, still staring blankly at the datapad even though she must have finished the relevant section by now. And when Jaesa turns to Vette, her friend has a contemplative frown on her lips.

“Says Gimrizh killed an overseer unprovoked,” Vette says.

“What it is, is libel, as a start,” Quinn says, outrage written across his face. “Lord Gimrizh might not be well known, but she is the most recent Korribanil to be promoted to the rank of Lord, not to mention the fact that as a Zabrak, I imagine she is under a fair amount of scrutiny. This is not just the most ridiculous thing I have ever read, it is compromising and could seriously damage Lord Gimrizh’s career.” He turns to Vette. “What is the readership of this - this worthless magazine?”

Vette gives him a half-hearted shrug. “Including myself? Probably about six people in the entire galaxy. I was only reading it cause I was specifically searching for the boss’s name. These academic mags aren’t exactly popular to begin with, and this one is basically unheard of.”

“Of course it’s unheard of. It’s clearly rubbish. I should report this to the Censorship Department at once - it’ll be removed from the Imperial holonet.”

Gimrizh slowly lowers the datapad and avoids Jaesa’s eyes. “It’s not. Libel, that is. This is all true.”

Quinn gapes at her. “My lord?”

“It was on Baras’s orders.”

“I - I see. If I may point out, my lord, this is still damaging to you. And if Lord Baras was behind this, then it damages him as well. I can still report this and get it taken down. This Eskella won’t be writing anything else for some time.”

“That… is probably for the best.”

There’s so much about her master that Jaesa doesn’t know. She could find out. She could reach out through the force and it would be so easy. Unconsciously the force springs to her fingertips, ready to answer to her will and let her travel down that mental path into her master’s mind. It is difficult to let that power go, to drop it back into the ebb and flow of the force, and yet Jaesa does it anyway. She already tested her master. Now it is time to give her privacy.

Frustration roils in her master. Jaesa holds out her hand. “Spar with me. This is clearly irritating you. Work it out of your system.”

Gimrizh forces out a laugh. “Who’s the apprentice now?”

But she accepts the offer anyway and Jaesa gets a thoroughly educational beat down.

~*~

Reus bursts out laughing.

He reads the sentence in front of him and then reads it again, slower this time, so he can savor the juicy accusations and snide commentary. While he has no idea who this Eskella person is, he greatly appreciates their work. Oh, the academic side of it - a misinformed hissy fit about the Institutes - is boringly inaccurate. What he loves is the unapologetic, unafraid, unsubtle call outs of dear old Gimrizh.

“If you have time to take a break and get in some light reading, then you have time to be reviewing the new forms I gave you.”

As much as a strange blessing this whole ‘Baras being his secret master’ thing is, Reus hates the instructor he got stuck with. He waves the datapad at Draahg. “It pertains to Gimrizh, if you’re curious.”

Draahg stomps over and snatches it out of his hands. He skims it. “There’s nothing here.”

“What?”

Reus takes the datapad back and gives it another look. The article has been deleted, and there’s a message listing certain obscure Imperial guidelines that it has violated. “Someone reported it already? Wow, Horns, insecure much?”

“Get back to work,” Draahg orders, throwing a practice blade at him.

~*~

Gimrizh observes the holo map in front of them. “Bring me up to speed.”

The holo turns to display a massive spaceport complex, showing a blinking red dot where the tracker is. “Yes, my lord,” Quinn begins, “General Frellka has remained here for the past three days. This used to be the Olaris Spaceport before the Republic’s restoration efforts collapsed. As far as we can tell, it is currently being used as their forward operations headquarters. Reports from our scouts and the trail General Durant left behind indicate that the rest of the War Trust has just arrived. While we don’t know where Governor Saresh is, it’s likely that she’ll be joining them as well.”

“So we’re on limited time.”

“Quite, my lord.”

In a way, that’s a blessing. It gives her less time to dwell on what she’s about to do. “Alright. I think we can work with that.”

Vette gives the map a surprisingly serious look as she considers the mission. “Can we slice into their system?”

“Not from here,” Quinn replies. “If we were able to infiltrate the spaceport and reach a computer terminal, we could easily set something up. However if we were to do that ahead of any committed strike on the War Trust, it would just sabotage our chances. As inefficient as the Republic can be, they are not entirely devoid of slicers, and they would be able to identify and remove our tap just as easily.”

“Shit. There goes my idea.”

Lieutenant Pierce crosses his arms across his chest, leaning back against the wall and looking at the map. “Durant didn’t give us much, but we got a decent glimpse at his forces. A lot of conscripts. If the pubs play by their usual book, they’ll be keeping to a large perimeter force without a lot of men inside the compound.”

Quinn looks like he’s trying very hard not to snap at Pierce. “My lord, the lieutenant’s statistics are inexact, but the general thrust is sound. It’s true that you will face significantly less opposition the further behind their lines you get.”

So then step one clearly has to be ‘get behind enemy lines’. Easy. “If you have a plan,” she says, trying not to think about her earlier conversation with Jaesa and the fact that apparently everyone has a plan besides her, “let’s hear it.”

“There is a power station that we’ve located. A strike there - “

“ - Would just get Lord Korribanil swarmed with reinforcements,” Pierce cuts in.

Quinn’s glare turns unusually icy. “Not if we lock out any Republic reinforcements from the beginning. If we simultaneously sabotage the spaceport’s force field - “

“ - And cut off our reinforcements, if we need ‘em?”

“If all goes according to plan, that won’t be necessary.”

“An overly complicated plan that splits up your key forces and leaves no way for Korribanil to book it if she gets overrun.”

“I would not allow that to happen,” Quinn insists.

“It won’t happen if we do things my way. Don’t worry, captain,” Pierce replies, “The real soldiers have got this one.”

Vette interrupts them by slamming her head on the table. “Please. Can we do this pissing contest later? I thought we were on some kid of deadline and things are really depressing when I’m being the responsible one.”

Gimrizh shoots Quinn a look to stop him from continuing the argument that the lieutenant is apparently trying to begin. At her insistent glance, Quinn takes a slow step back from the holo, letting his obvious retort die on his lips. At least they won’t have any infighting before this mission. She’s not really designed to be a buffer, and she does best when her crew aren’t at each other’s throats. Besides, they have a job to do. Vette’s right. Quinn and the lieutenant can bicker with each other all they want after they complete the task at hand.

Jaesa coughs politely. “If we need a way for Master Gimrizh to get inside the spaceport, I think we already have one.”

“Oh yeah!” Vette grins. “Gimrizh’s Jedi alter-ego.”

Not that shit again. Fuck this. Fuck that. Fuck everything.

Upon seeing the disgusted look on her face, Vette gives her a stern look. “Admit it. You’re mad mostly because you know it’d work.”

“I - It might work,” Gimrizh concedes. “It would get me close to Frellka safely, but the rest of the War Trust would figure out pretty quickly that I’m an imposter. I got lucky before with my lightsaber, and Frellka was pressured into trusting me largely due to the threat Jaesa posed. Under pressure, he went with his instinct - to trust a Jedi.”

Vette blinks. “Wow. You actually do understand emotions.”

“I’m a Sith. If you ever bothered to read our codes, you’d see - “

“Yeah sure I’ll do that later.”

It’s pointless to get into a snit with Vette over this. For starters, Vette would win. “Back to the plan,” Gimrizh says with a sigh. “Lieutenant, you were able to capture another of Durant’s men, right?”

“Yeah,” Pierce agrees. “Not sure what use that busted up trooper will be to us.”

“Did you keep his uniform?”

~*~

Elaxis Frellka is the last to arrive.

Minst, Durant, and Faraire are already seated at the round table, pouring over the plans for weapons facilities that Saresh has concocted. It has been a long time since he and his fellows have been in the same room. Holo calls are all well and good, but it is good to have that rapport that they can only really establish in person. The four of them are too high up in the Republic’s military structure to afford in-fighting, and so they make a point to gather on Coruscant once a year. With the growing tensions in the galaxy, that deadline has long since passed.

In that way, Saresh’s call to Taris has been a blessing.

The woman herself is here as well, sitting with her back perfectly straight, one lekku tossed over her shoulder. “Frellka,” she says warmly as he enters the conference room. “Good to see you again.”

“You as well,” he replies.

“Did you encounter any trouble? You are… rather delayed.”

“Some, yes. I was able to lose my tail, however. I’m here now, and that’s all that matters.”

“Good.” Saresh enlarges the holo and gets to business. “What you see before you are my new plans for weapons manufacturing. As you are well aware, Taris’s cities were mostly destroyed, and we’ve been unable to reclaim significant areas that would be suitable for civilian populations. That, and the Empire is breathing down our necks. We can’t recolonize this place anymore. But there is one thing we can use this place for. The plans that I will put into motion will begin to repurpose all the scrap metal on this planet into weapons. We’re scavenging this planet anyways, we might as well be efficient about it.”

Minst leans forward. It’s difficult to tell what the Rodian is thinking, but there’s a definite intensity in his bug-like eyes. “What sort of weapons are we talking about?”

Saresh spreads her hands out, opening herself up to the four of them. “That’s up to you. These weapons would go straight into the hands of your men, to be used however you see fit. Ideally, this project would be greenlighted by the four of you, not myself, so that we can avoid it being constrained by the Senate. That’s not what the Republic needs right now.”

The unspoken promise of exclusivity is not missed by Elaxis, or any of his fellows.

He sighs and fingers the datastick in his pocket. “Governor, while I do appreciate the offer, and I’m certain we’re likely to be amenable, there is something I think we should discuss first.”

Faraire narrows his eyes. “This is news to us as well. What is it?”

At that moment, Elaxis’s bodyguard gets a holo call.

“Sir!” the small blue figure of a guard says. “There’s someone here to see General Frellka!”

“Who?” Faraire pushes his chair back and gets to his feet. “Frellka, we were supposed to inform no one of this meeting.”

The guard nervously turns to something out of view and then replies, “It’s a Jedi, sir. Jedi Kerin Girik. She’s… covered in blood and she collapsed at the spaceport border. We think she’s injured, but she insists on speaking with you before seeing a medic.”

Shit, she survived that fight with Jaesa Willsaam? Elaxis hadn’t thought she’d make it - he’d seen her get swatted to the side behind him as he retreated. “I know who she is. Bring her in here and get a medic ready in case her injuries worsen.” He turns to his companions and adds, “She saved my life earlier - and actually she pertains to what I was about to discuss with you before that interruption.”

Faraire frowns, “A Jedi?”

“Yes. Rineth sent her.”

“Which Rineth?” Durant asks with a sharp laugh. “The so-called ‘Hero of Tython’ or the thin smear of sour milk sitting on the Council?”

“The latter,” Elaxis confirms, “Who even knows what the younger Rineth is up to these days - running around the galaxy like a madman probably. Kerin told me she had something important for the five of us to see, but if she’s still alive then we’ll be able to get more information from her as well.”

He can see Saresh whisper something to one of her aides before she turns back to the group. “I must admit, I’m a little confused. I should have records of this Jedi arriving on Taris.”

There’s no way Kerin would have been able to fake that lightsaber registration. Jedi always report a stolen or lost lightsaber, and it also would have been invalid if it belonged to a dead Jedi. And an imposter wouldn’t have warned him about Willsaam’s attack. “She saved my life,” he repeats. “We should at least give her medical help if she’s this badly injured.”

Durant taps his chin thoughtfully. “She could be useful. I agree with Frellka.”

~*~

“Careful now,” the guard cautions, “The medbay is just ahead.”

Gimrizh leans with almost her whole weight on him, forcing her breathing to sound labored as she limps towards the spaceport’s medical center. Out of the corner of her eyes she tracks the holo cameras lining the corridors. The security is stretched a bit thin inside the building. Every forty paces or so there’s a blind spot, although they are admittedly small. This place really isn’t designed for military use.

They reach the medbay.

The guard punches the key panel and the doors slide open. He helps Gimrizh stagger onto a medical bed, smearing blood on the starched white sheets. “Stay here,” he says, “I’ll go get the medic right away.”

She checks the cameras. As she thought, there was only the one watching the medbay’s doors, but none inside. Patient privacy and all that. Quinn had been right.

“I’m getting into position now,” she says aloud, brushing the commlink under her ear to make sure it’s clean.

The guard turns around. “What?”

You have two minutes until Jaesa is ready,” Quinn informs her. “You’re clear, my lord.

Gimrizh stands up, shrugs her blood stained beige coat off her shoulders, and reaches for the Sith lightsaber hidden behind her back. Her fingers tighten around the warm metal and it feels so good to abandon the veneer of some pathetic Jedi. No matter how she looks, who she pretends to be, or what lightsaber she uses, at the end of the day she is Sith.

Before the guard can draw his blaster she’s put her red lightsaber through his neck.

There’s a thud as his body hits the floor.

She straightens up and flicks a clump of dried blood out of her hair. Naga Sadow’s lightsaber is returned to its usual place on her belt and she sheds the second brown undercoat that hides her usual clothes from view - a dark wrap top and a synthleather tabard. No more force-damned beige.

With a tug on the force, she removes a metal grate on the ceiling, exposing the spaceport’s ventilation system.

Definitely big enough.

She jumps up, grabs onto the ledge, and flips her body up into the shaft. Another gesture in the force replaces the grate and then she’s on the move.

~*~

Malavai allows Vette to be the first one on the scene. He follows her out of the stolen Republic walker a minute later, cleaning up the few pubs she’s left with a series of quick, silent bolts. At his signal, the walker hunkers down to wait for them. As much as he hates to admit it, the lieutenant was correct in that they do need a secure escape route. The walker should hold, and if it doesn’t, they can likely steal a different form of transport. Vette strikes him as the sort of person who’s adept at hot-wiring a speeder.

He shoots Vette a stern look and she rolls her eyes in return, but falls behind him anyway.

They skirt around the edge of the spaceport until coming across the right door - a bulkhead that’s been blockaded shut. It’s an emergency exit more than anything else, and if Malavai’s guess is correct, behind it is a command room.

“We are ready at your signal, my lord,” he tells Gimrizh through the comms.

Vette’s grinning as she uses a gel to place the wires around the doorframe. “You’re in the vents, right boss? Try not to breathe a lot in the next few minutes.”

That sounds lovely,” comes Gimrizh’s sarcastic retort. “Jaesa, ready?”

Yes, master.

~*~

Jaesa holds still, compliant as the Republic guards clamp binders around her wrists.

“Willsaam,” the Republic sergeant says. He’s afraid of her, oh yes, he’s terrified under all that bravado. Despite that, he still maintains a stern front. There’s anger too. Is that helping him like it helps Sith? She shakes the thought from her head - she can ruminate on the appearance of duality in the force later. “You are under arrest. Come quietly, and it won’t be as difficult for you. We are authorized to kill you if you run. You’re no Jedi anymore.”

She nods. “I know.”

Uncertainty. He wasn’t expecting that.

The sergeant takes point while her escort and two other guards watch her back, one prodding his blaster between her shoulder blades. A sharp jab everytime she doesn’t walk as fast as he would prefer. It’s unpleasant, but she reminds herself that it could be worse. They could have insisted on binding her ankles as well.

Olaris Spaceport looms before them. Underneath the sections that have crumbled with time, propped up by scaffolding, and the areas were the foliage has won against the restoration efforts, the building is still a testament to Republic beauty. Soft, curved lines of architecture, a delicate asymmetry in form. Echoes of that remind her of Anchorhead, the Republic settlement on Tatooine. She’d spent a lot of time there with Master Yonlach. She takes a deep breath in and lets her mind’s eye blur the spaceport’s shape into the skyline of Anchorhead.

Sand under her boots, warmth kissing her skin, the quiet sturdy presence of Master Yonlach at her side. Nothing like the storm that whirls within Master Gimrizh.  

Jaesa tries to find that sturdiness and bring it into herself.

The sergeant escorts her through the security gates and inside the walls of the spaceport.

If it comes down to it, can she kill him? Can she kill the men behind her? Master Gimrizh promised that she would not punish Jaesa for letting people live, but such inaction might instead punish Gimrizh. Or Vette. Or Captain Quinn, or even Lieutenant Pierce, who she finds she really doesn’t mind working with. Is that the bargain the force presents her with? Blood for blood, taking life to preserve it.

A contradiction just like the force itself.

The central terminal of the spaceport has been converted into a hangar bay, and that is where the Republic soldiers force Jaesa to her knees.

A dozen other guards are assembled, keeping their eyes on her.

The sergeant steps in front of her. “You’ll be transport back to Coruscant for judgement, is that understood? The Jedi Council will lock you up themselves.”

The charges are placed,” Captain Quinn says. The com crackles in her ear and she takes a deep breath. “Five seconds. Four, three -

~*~

“ - Two, one.”

Malavai covers his ears as Vette yanks hard on her trip wire.

Boom.

The explosion shatters through the quiet air, a blast of fire rages past them. They’re pressed against the wall, positioned carefully so that when the door is blown off its hinges all the fire and debris goes past them. Malavai would prefer not to get crushed by a chunk of spaceport wall, thank you very much. The heat of the blast and the bright light of the fire still echo even once it’s safe to engage.

A smokescreen covers their advance.

Inside the building he can hear panicked shouts and rushed footsteps as the Republic soldiers scramble to respond.

Vette bursts through the smoke, blasters raised. The burst of the bolt emission is a flash of light in the grey. She can’t see the pubs much better than they can see her, but Malavai has to admit that she’s got a good sense of a fire fight, and knowns how to use cover and sound when her eyes fail.

He waits a second before stepping into the smoke as well. He draws his blaster and aims. While he can’t see either, he watches the flashes of light as the Republic soldiers discharge their weapons blindly towards Vette. He counts the lights. Remembers where they are.

Shoots.

One, two, three bolts.

Three thuds as the bodies hit the floor.

“Showoff,” Vette grumbles, stowing her blasters.

“Secure the entrance,” he orders, ignoring her comment and proceeding as planned.

She attaches blast shield generators - small ones, without much long lasting power - to the entrance that they blew up. A blue wavy field forms over the door. It should hold off most standard charge bolts, should the Republic decide to send reinforcements to deal with them - an unlikely outcome, given the role Jaesa is about to play.

Malavai retrieves a light globe from one of the pouches on his belt and tosses it into the air. It expands into a fist sized ball and hovers around waist height, giving off a calm white light.

“We’re bunkered in and ready to go.” He can hear Vette both through the comms and due to the fact that he’s standing right next to her. “Boss?”

I have visual.” Gimrizh’s voice is a low whisper that sends a shiver running down his spine. Her voice is almost a purr as she adds, “Let’s make them run, shall we?”

“Right away, my lord.”

Fortunately, the computer terminals are intact. He steals an abandoned seat in front of the center terminal and plugs his datapad into it. It takes only a moment for his decryption program to run and then he has access to the servers.

A holo of the spaceport pops up, a bright map of the enemy territory marked with four moving red dots - the trackers on the group’s commlinks. He projects that onto the main screen and then moves it to the side. Security footage… Stars, he hates Republic systems. There. He pulls up the camera footage, flicking through feeds until he has a visual on the War Trust. They are right under the blinking red dot that marks Gimrizh’s location.

“I have eyes on you, my lord.”

~*~

Boom.

The floors shudder, the guards stumble backwards, looking around in confusion. Jaesa takes a deep breath in.

“What was - “ one mutters.

The soldier at her side yanks his helmet off and uses the hunk of plastic and metal to hit the nearest guard across the face, sending the woman flying. He shoots the sergeant in the chest and then slams his blaster into the other guard’s head, making the man collapse to the floor in a heap.

Let’s make them run, shall we?” Gimrizh says over the comms and Pierce smirks.

He reaches into one of the pockets on his stolen uniform. Jaesa sees the glint of metal and reaches her hands out to catch it when he throws it to her. Her lightsaber. Yellow light blooms in front of her eyes as she ignits her double-edged weapon and cuts through her bonds in one quick movement.

The Republic soldiers open fire.

There’s the clattering crack of Pierce’s automatic rifle as he sends a storm of bolts towards the enemy. Yes. The enemy. Jaesa’s enemy.

Her blade is a comfort in her hand. A familiarity. Master Gimrizh did not insist she replace her weapon with something that came out of a Sith supply depot, and for that she is infinitely grateful. The yellow kyber crystals suit her. Not exactly a Jedi color, but not a Sith one either, and it took her a while to realize why exactly she was shying away from the blues and greens of the Jedi.

A bolt whizzes past her ear and she flips her weapon around in her hand.

Pierce drops to one knee to better balance his blaster. She steps to cover his back, twirling her blade around and around in circles, deflecting bolts as fast at the Republic can shoot them. Some are redirected harmlessly into the ground, but others she is less careful with. Others fly back into their sender’s bodies, and she knows that some of the soldiers who drop to the ground like flies are her kills, not the lieutenants.

One of the soldiers hits the alarm.

Red lights flash and a siren wails through the spaceport halls. Behind her, she can hear the chk-chk-thud of the blast doors sliding shut over the entrance.

~*~

Alarms scream.

Durant shuts his holo off as the reports flood in. “It’s Jaesa Willsaam. Orinth squad captured her but - There’s fighting in the hangar bay, we have reports of an explosion somewhere along the northern perimeter, and a guard was found dead in the medbay - ”

“Shut up,” Faraire orders. “We’re getting to the bunker, now. We can plan a counter attack from there.”

Frellka grabs Faraire’s arm. “If there was a dead guard in the medbay - “

“Yes, your Jedi friend is probably a victim as well. Pity, but we can’t do anything about it now.”

The four members of the War Trust rush off, Faraire setting the pace at a hurried march. Frellka’s concern is almost touching, if it weren’t a stupid oversight. Just as Faraire, the most experienced of the four, makes another crucial oversight. None of the War Trust notice Saresh split from the group.

Gimrizh stares down at the command room through the metal slits of a vent.

The weapons development plans, the various datasticks of who-even-knows what sort of information that the War Trust brought with them - Saresh pockets them all, grabs her assistant, and leaves in the opposite direction.

“Saresh is going a different way,” Gimrizh says under her breath.

We cannot afford to waste time following her. She’s inconsequential compared to the War Trust,” Quinn stresses.

“Can we track her?”

I can attempt to, at the least.

“Thank you. You’re right though, I can’t prioritize her.” She brings up her wrist to look at her tactical comm that’s been clipped onto her gloves. A press of a button opens up the connection between her comm and Quinn’s datapad. “Show me where I’m going.”

A blue holo map blinks into existence. It centers on a red dot - herself. Four small yellow dots - the War Trust - are moving quickly away from her. “I’m tracking their movements through the spaceport, my lord, although they are being rather predictable.” The map suddenly focuses on the ventilation system. “I’m highlighting the optimal route for you to take. Unfortunately, it is indirect. You will need to be quick in order to make it to the designated bunker before the targets are sealed in.

“Got it. Prepare to kill the lights at my signal.”

She lowers her hand, her fingers curling around the metal grate. And then she moves.

The tunnels are a winding maze, more twists and turns than she can count. Occasionally she has to double check the map Quinn gave her.

Her feet fall silently on the metal, the sound muffled by a touch of the force. A prized trick of hers, but she doesn’t often have the focus necessary to pull it off. Almost two years ago now, when Tremel had first taken her as his student, she had asked him how to eavesdrop on people and not get caught. This had been his answer. He taught her a dozen other little tricks over the course of that year. And in return, she’d cut his hand off and kicked him into exile.

What Eskella is writing about her doesn’t matter. It doesn’t bother her.

It doesn’t.

She grinds her jaw together and swings her body up onto a catwalk. She lightly hits the criss-crossed beams, landing on the balls of her feet with one hand brushing the bar to stabilize herself.

Below her and farther ahead, she can see the War Trust.

They’re already inside the bunker.

Shit.

My lord, you have to make it.” Quinn is uncharacteristically worried. “Vette and I are ready to cut the lights, but you have to be inside the bunker before we do.”

Her hearts pound in her chest. “Do it! I’ll make it!”

She bursts into a dead sprint, her feet gostling the catwalk. The door begins to close. She can see exactly where the catwalk continues inside the secure area, her eyes track her path through the air to a safe landing.

There’s maybe a meter of space left between the doors.

She jumps.

~*~

Vette can see Quinn’s hesitation. He’s staring so intently at the holo screens that she thinks his eyes might shrivel up. “She said do it,” she reminds him.

“Fine,” he relents, punching in the necessary lines of code.

Vette flips open the plastic case, revealing the ‘emergency don’t use ever don’t even touch’ lever that will cut the power. “Here goes.”

She pulls.

~*~

Foris tosses a grenade at a bunch of pubs - it explodes in a shower of debris and tears a couple of the bastards into shreds. It’s not enough. Hells, even with an entire squad, it wouldn’t be enough. They aren’t here to play a numbers game though, they’re just here to drawn fire. And it helps that he’s got a Sith at his side. Jaesa’s a real blessing when it comes to defense. He’s only been grazed a couple of times. Nothing serious.

They hear the call out a second before it happens.

He shoots one last pub before shouldering his blaster - Jaesa grabs hold of his arm -

Every light in the base goes out.

“Follow me,” the Sith whispers.

He can’t see shit. To be fair, he’s got decent night vision, but that takes time for his eyes to adjust and this sudden plunge into darkness isn’t doing him any favors. The auxiliary power will probably kick in - he gives the system sixty seconds or less. When that happens he’ll be able to see somewhat, only they aren’t supposed to be around when that happens.

He lets Jaesa lead him out of the hangar bay like a blind mynock.

~*~

“You were tracked, Frellka!” Faraire yells. “When Willsaam attacked your forward ops post earlier this week, she tracked you, you idiot. You have compromised this entire mission and the potential of the Taris Weapons Project.”

“I did no such thing - “

“This arguing is pointless,” Durant points out, “as we are stuck in this bunker until we can clear the Sith out - “

The lights blink out.

The War Trust doesn’t panic. They form a defensive formation, backs to each other, blasters out.

Above them, Gimrizh closes her eyes, lets her body dip into the force and feels their position. She doesn’t need to see them to kill them. Her hands unclip her two lightsabers and she holds them at the ready.

Who to kill first? Frellka is probably the weakest, as he’s the newest. No, it has to be Faraire. If she has only this first guaranteed kill, she needs to take out their strongest fighter first. That’s the least risky option, and she’d prefer not to needlessly endanger herself on the gamble - that she could theoretically kill Frellka faster and theoretically get in a second kill before the auxiliary lights turn on.

She steps off the catwalk.

Air rushes past her face and then she hits the ground in a silent crouch, landing right in the middle of the War Trust’s defensive circle.

Blue light bursts through the darkness as she puts her blade through the back of Faraire’s head.

He falls.

The sound is hidden as there’s a whirr of noise - the secondary power kicking to life. Red emergency lights illuminate the bunker, and suddenly the rest of the War Trust comes to the blinking realization that Faraire is on the ground, unmoving. And that there is someone else among them.

Minst is the first to whirl around, getting one shot off that misses her wildly and then she spins, cutting a fatal line across his torso.

“Kerin?” Frellka gasps, staggering backwards.

Gimrizh narrows her eyes and ignites her second lightsaber, basking in the red glow. “Close, but not quite.”

A slice - Durant tries to cut at her with a vibroknife. She leans backwards and then ducks under his arm as he tries again. He strikes at her with his blaster, trying to bash her head in between firing at her. It’s a shame that Frellka is too stunned to do anything for a crucial few seconds - Durant isn’t bad at this, and if the both of them fought against her they could buy themselves some time. Instead her tussle with Durant is short lived.

She drops to the ground and then rolls forward, straightening up within his measure, her nose close enough to brush against his neck. Close enough to see the life fade from his eyes as she plunges both her blades into his torso.

His body falls with a thud.

Frellka stumbles, shoots wildly, and misses. He backs away from her with fear in his eyes. “But I thought - you saved my life.”

“Jaesa Willsaam is my apprentice. That datastick you blindly took from me was a tracker and it led me straight to your comrades.”

An old voice echoes in her head. Tremel’s voice as he reprimands her during training. Faster, she thinks, I need to be faster. She slowly bends her knees until they scrape the floor, her body leaning forward. One hand braced on the ground, two fingers touching the concrete as she holds her lightsaber. Her other blade is held behind her. She draws in a deep breath.

Frellka shoots.

Her body uncoils.

The bolt sears a line across her side but it doesn’t matter, she’s flying - she shoots across the bunker, carving a straight line through the air - through Frellka’s neck - the red glow of her blade tracing her path -

She skids to a stop before his head has the time to topple from his body.

“We’re done here.”

~*~

Malavai steps aside as Vette clambers into the walker’s pilot seat and takes control of the vehicle. A moment after they arrive, Jaesa and Lieutenant Pierce scramble into the walker. Pierce drops into a defensive position by the entrance, keeping an eye out for any pubs that come their way. Jaesa, on the other hand, is surprisingly quick to check on Vette. And Gimrizh… is still not here.

Just as Malavai pulls up the map to check her tracker, she bursts through the blown open wall and stumbles into the walker.

“Let’s get out of here,” she orders.

As soon as the hatch has closed and Vette’s got the walker moving back towards Imperial territory, Gimrizh grabs onto one of the handle bars and leans her entire weight against it. Malavai’s heart skips a beat when he sees the deep red blood seeping down the side of her shirt.

“My lord,” he says, making his way to her side, “Sit down, please.”

She blinks at him. “What?”

“You’re bleeding quite heavily. Please sit down while I patch you up,” he reiterates.

There’s surprise in her eyes as she looks down to see the blood. “Oh.”

She sags into one of the seats that line the walker’s walls and tugs off her shirt, leaving her in a ruined piece of mesh armour and chest wrappings, her side stained with blood. He opens