Bendak Anor retreated to his on-board office after authorizing the yacht’s captain to give the crew shore leave in Chalcedon’s spaceport. The weekly report from his Coruscant agent was due now that they had landed. He sat in the conform-seat behind his greel wood desk and waited for the larger holofile to finish downloading to his unit. Krill Senth Cresh had delivered a catalog of their current merchandise as soon as he had landed, so he perused that. He sneered at their pathetic human offerings. Nothing with the possibility of being delectable after much work in his preferred age range. And all they had under his age range were infants for all purposes. He had no desire to own a slave for a decade or longer before it could serve his needs. So this trip would only be another procurement errand.
The HoloNet chimed that his holovid had finished downloading. He set aside the catalog and focused on the projection. The face of his agent Sarskokrour Jus appeared first. The blue tint of the hologram disguised the redness of the Nikto, but didn’t affect the leathery and scaly texture of his skin and didn’t hide the eight horns that protruded around his face. “The target expanded her excursions this week. She is still living in the Imperial Palace and goes to the Senate Executive Building every day, but she has cut back her hours spent there. She has started taking meals in various restaurants available in the district and CoCo Town, midday and evening in the company of Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker. He has not been added to the New Republic committee that she has been working with for the past six months. He is present in the attached spy droid footage. She also accompanied Councilor Sian Tevv to the inaugural performance of the Galaxies Opera House. The spy droid footage shows that Skywalker attended the same performance with Minister of State Organa Solo and her husband and approached the target during intermission. The two parties combined for an after-performance meal, and well, you’ll see the footage for yourself but it looks like Tevv and Solo conspired to put the target and Skywalker in an airspeeder taxi alone. Message me if you want to change the parameters of this job.”
Anor scowled as the fly eye droid footage began to play. His kriff-toy—the best one he had ever trained—greeted a fair-skinned, nondescript, young man dressed all in black on the plaza outside the Senate Executive Building. She was still wearing the utilitarian jumpsuits, tunics, and trousers that covered up too much of her creamy skin. But they were tight enough to display the curves that had filled out on her lean body since Palpatine took her away. The same young man was with her in the next footage. Both of them seated at the same table in a casual restaurant, enjoying the company of the other. So that must be the infamous Luke Skywalker, hero of the New Republic. The actor portraying him in the holodramas had more gravitas than the actual. What was his kriff-toy getting out of this association?
That question could be expanded to what she was doing with the New Republic at large. She had helped them defeat Grand Admiral Thrawn and took this position as a liaison between smugglers and the government, why? Her loyalty was absolute. The things he got her to do just by whispering “the Emperor wishes it” in her delicate ear; the memories were still arousing, helped no doubt by the close up of her smirking face provided by the spy droid. It focused on Skywalker’s abashed expression next. What the hell did she find appealing in that, a chance to corrupt the religious? Was it all a ploy so she could go home to Coruscant after Isard chased her from it?
Damn Iceheart to all the Corellian hells! That power-mad ronk had thrown off all his plans in her quest to become Empress. Without the Emperor, his kriff-toy would have returned to his tight grip, she needed a master. She had forgotten about him and his protection as she fled Isard’s pursuit. He hadn’t a chance to even offer it before she was gone and the Rebels were at Coruscant’s planetary shield. Three and a half years later, she had finally resurfaced, reclaiming the name assigned to her by Palpatine, and aligned with the New Republic and Talon Karrde, smuggler and information broker.
Jus had looked into Karrde and discovered the man did not play the control games Anor’s kriff-toy needed. Anor scowled harder. Getting her back from a Hutt would be simple. He didn’t have the resources to leverage a man like Karrde, who by all reports never abused his employees. Where was she getting her sexual needs met?
The recorded footage had reached the inaugural performance of the Galaxies Opera House. A richly dressed Sullustan helped Anor’s elegantly coiffed kriff-toy out of an airspeeder. The green gown she wore was comprised of shimmersilk panels and strategically place slits. Nearly all of her arms were bare from the shoulder to the cuff of the gown that closed in tight on her forearm to her wrist. Manacles should be worn with that dress; those who didn’t understand would think they were snug but beautiful bracelets. The panels descended to her feet, but her long legs kicked out of the slits as she moved. And the slit from the collar to the embellished waist revealed the lack of foundation garments on her breasts. Loose tendrils of red hair escaped the up-do and framed her face and neck. That hairstyle was wrong. It should be pulled back into a tight braid, making a natural leash to correct her misbehavior better with.
The spy droid followed the pair into the Galaxies Opera House lobby, but not into the auditorium’s seating area. Then there was a time lapse and people and aliens congregated the lobby again, taking refreshments from the unobtrusive serving droids. His kriff-toy was conversing with her Sullustan escort and her back was to the nearest entrance to the auditorium. The fly eye’s holographic lens caught Skywalker as he entered the lobby wearing an impeccably cut black suit under a black jacket cut like a short robe. His expression when he spotted the kriff-toy went familiarly incandescent before he schooled his features and approached her.
Anor recognized that look from her training. It often crossed the faces of slaves he had allowed his kriff-toy to dominate for his viewing pleasure. It had crossed many faces of military men and moffs in the court when she focused attention on them. How many of those poor bastards realized Palpatine’s execution order came in such a gorgeous package or had they died in the throes of oblivious ecstasy from her attention?
But her demeanor right then in the lobby when Skywalker reached them; Anor leaned closer to the holoprojector. Her smile was warm and soft in a way he had never seen her use in court. She tilted closer to him as if Skywalker had gravitational pull and he nearly matched the pitch. Skywalker’s answering smile showed how much he appreciated how she had graced him with her acknowledgment. The Sullustan said something that reddened both their cheeks.
Shavit! They were lovers. That explained the increased contact, the various meal dates, and happening to bump into each other at events where for some crazy political reason they had to attend with different people. Which the Sullustan was amused enough to point out to the pair of them how transparent it all was. He seethed. How dare she give herself to anyone else without his permission! His kriff-toy would spend weeks in a bacta tank once he was finished discipling her. Maybe even skip the bacta so her scars would remind her of her transgression.
He drew his anger back under control. There was her beauty to consider and he had missed breaking her stoic expression with pain and pleasure. But punishment had to wait until she was in his ownership again. He had to draw her away from Coruscant and Karrde’s organization. He had to remind her of what she was and that her only safety in the galaxy was with him. He turned off the holovid to compose his message to Jus. He had no desire to watch Skywalker fawn over his kriff-toy.
“Jus, I’m changing the parameters of this job. Continue the surveillance, but I want you to break into her quarters and destroy everything she owns. Make it clear that the New Republic cannot keep her safe. Actually, leave a dancing girl’s outfit so it’s the only clothes she has to wear. Leave a message for her to return to Columex. Add whatever theatrical touches you think necessary. Don’t get caught because if she rents a hotel room or uses something Karrde owns, you’ll have to repeat the attack in the same way until she leaves planet.”
Satisfied with his message, he sent it to Coruscant. It was time to focus on the procurement mission. He combed his fingers through his curly iron-gray hair, giving it the appropriate level of dishevelment. He pulled a greel wood box out of the desk’s bottom drawer. The box’s darker red hue contrasted with the scarlet of the desktop and the black velvet interior lining. The blood scanning device nestled inside on the black cushion didn’t suggest such careful ceremony, but this blood scanner had been gifted to him by the Emperor. Anor had no idea what it tested but the Emperor had wanted the humans that registered positive with it and had compensated him for the expense of buying them. After the Emperor fell, Executor Sedriss had approached Anor to continue the buying. Unfortunately, the slave markets were not what they used to be, even ones run by the Karazak Slavers Cooperative.
He slipped the blood scanner into his jacket pocket and the catalog went into the other. The sleeve covered the holdout blaster holster on his right forearm. The large, three-story, multiple winged bazaar abutted the spaceport so it was only a short stroll from his yacht into the beige duracrete structure. Kor Jhcor, the human distribution manager who personally handled all of Anor’s purchases, waited at the main archway between the spaceport and the bazaar. Jhcor had smooth, dark skin and kept his hair in many tight braids that reached his shoulders. Jhcor’s age was rather hard to determine, though Anor was positive Jhcor was younger than himself. “Master Anor, I trust you have received the current catalog. Shall I bring a product out for your personal inspection?”
Anor smiled deprecatory. “Unfortunately, I am only buying on behalf of my client and not for my personal collection, Master Jhcor.”
“I set aside the human blood samples for you in anticipation of that.” Jhcor walked beside him through center of the large hall. The upper story had an alien script that Anor couldn’t read made of red volcanic glass and set into the duracrete. The design was copied on the ceiling high above their heads and on the floor, though the floor version was smaller and ran in parallel lines denoting the walkway space from the booth space. The booths occupied square alcoves regularly spaced on both sides of the hall. Krill Senth Cresh’s products were interspersed with sellers of artisan crafts and mass-produced kitsch. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you with our selection in Twi’leks? We liberated them from a Hutt shipment, so you can be assured of the highest quality.” Jhcor waved a hand at the booth they passed. A chalk-white female Twi’lek knelt on the counter-top with her knees splayed wide for inspection from the potential buyers.
“Alas, I’m afraid a Twi’lek would draw too much attention on the planet I’ve had to relocate to.” Columex didn’t allow non-humans to immigrate. They were welcome to stop and trade, but moving one in would draw the attention of Columex’s anti-slavery fanatics.
“The New Republic continues spreading their equality propaganda.” Jhcor sniffed disdainfully as he ushered Anor through the door of an enclosed alcove furnished with a table and chairs.
“In this case, I believe it is a streak of Old Republic idealism that refuses to die out, despite how the planetary interests align with the Empire.” Anor sat at the table and set the blood scanner in front of him while Jhcor opened the box of tiny vials.
“We only have twenty humans available at this sale.” He pushed the box across the table and the vials did not fill the top row of slots to hold them. “If your client is willing to acquire non-human, it will be only a moment to get those samples.”
Anor shook his head. “My client only wants humans.” He opened the first vial, ignored the identifying markings on the outside of the container, and inserted the probe into the red fluid. The scanner read negative. He moved to the next. “Is Krill Senth Cresh still taking jobs targeting specific targets?”
“Personal interest or for your client?”
“Personal for now, but I never know what my client may want next.” The second and third vials were also negative. He re-closed them and put them back in the box. “I’m only exploring the option at this point.”
“I understand. We require a fee to send in an acquisition specialist, refundable if we decide the venture is too risky or if you decide the price to accomplish the venture is too steep. The size of the fee depends on the planet. If you will excuse me, I’ll get you a list of the current prices.”
“Of course.” Anor continued checking the vials as the dark-skinned man left the waiting room. The seventh spiked on the positive side. He carefully stoppered the vial again and set it on the table. He plowed through the rest of the negative samples and was on the last five by the time Jhcor returned with a datapad. He waited patiently as Anor finished. The remaining five vials were all negative. “One out of twenty.”
“Has your client ever told you what he is testing for?” Jhcor slid the datapad across the table to Anor before picking up the vial left out of the box. “I ask only because we could plan a raid to target exactly what they want. One out of twenty, we can improve those odds.”
Anor sighed. “If I was supposed to know what the test is for, I would have been told. I’ll pass on your offer to target the raid specifically for their needs. Meanwhile, let’s have a look at that one.” Jhcor bowed his head and left with the vial. Anor picked up the datapad. He would make stops at the Zygerrian Slavers Guild on Zygerria and wherever the Thalassian Slavers set up shop to sell, but he didn’t expect to find more products to offer Executor Sedriss. He glanced over the list of prices. Jus was no kidnapper, and the Krill Senth Cresh were so very good at snatching sentients. His kriff-toy’s resistance would not matter.
The price for an acquisition specialist to survey a target on Coruscant did matter, as it far exceeded all credits he could reasonably accrue. Even if he sold his specialized collectible droids, and he had worked so hard to collect the set of five, there wouldn’t be enough credits. But if Jus could harass her off planet—Daan’s rate was a bargain in comparison—hiring the Krill Senth Cresh might be feasible. And their results would be worth nearly all the credits he had.
Jhcor returned pulling a small child along by the chain between her wrist manacles. Her dark skin was a shade lighter than Jhcor’s, her brown eyes huge as they stared out from the rounded face, and her curly black hair sprang from her head like a matted and tangled mane. Anor frowned with a sigh. “An infant.”
“Not an infant, she’s a four-years-old by our medical scans,” Jhcor grinned at him. “A very healthy female and one-hundred percent human. By our standards, she is classified as a child.”
“She’s an infant as far as my desires are concerned.” Anor continued frowning at the child whose future beauty was too far away to determine. Right now she resembled a vibro-mop dressed in a torn and dirty tunic and trousers. “My client doesn’t care what age the product is. Can she be transported in a sed-box? I’d prefer not to have to deal with her before delivery.”
“Of course we can tailor a sed-box for her size and weight for an additional fee.” Jhcor dropped the child’s chain and she stood obediently at his side. A facade beat into her by the Krill Senth Cresh, Anor was under no illusions that she’d maintain that level of quiet and stillness once aboard his yacht. Jhcor pulled a datapad out of his jacket pocket and recalculated the figures. “And do you wish to hire an acquisition specialist at this time?”
“Not at this time, but it’s subject to change.” Anor took the datapad and analyzed the bill of sale. He authorized with his thumb print and handed it back with his credit chip.
Jhcor took the payment from it and handed it back with a datacard containing the child’s information, bill of sale, and ownership details. “All finalized, Master Anor, if you’ll come this way, we can ready the product for transport to your vessel.”
“Of course.” Anor pocketed his blood scanner in his jacket and followed Jhcor and the girl back out into the bazaar.
Luke leaned back from the console and rubbed his eyes. Today had seemed like a good day to review information from the archive search, but he had overdone it. The letters were all blending together, not to mention everything he had read. Time to stop. Twilight was descending over the Imperial Palace he noticed as he focused his eyes outside the wall of transparisteel that separated the parlor dining room from the balcony. He should see about supper now.
His comlink signaled. Mara’s voice bubbled on the other end. “This is not an official announcement. We put Tevv in charge of that and the official we have come to an agreement party. So keep it in the airlock, but the contract is signed!”
He stretched out to feel her euphoria. She was in the Palace, in her residential section a few levels away. It was getting easier to feel her emotions the more they trained together. And she wasn’t trying to shield from him. “That’s great. Now what happens? Besides the party to officially announce it.”
“Tomorrow, I plan to sleep in. I’ve earned it. The day after that I’ll get the shipping schedules up and running. Right now, do you want to get food? I know it’s short notice, but I want to celebrate.”
“I don’t have any supper plans.”
“Great, give me a chance to put on something a little nicer—” Her voice broke off and he felt her satisfied excitement vanish in a flash of rage.
“I’ll comm you back, Skywalker. I have to contact security.” She closed the connection.
He checked his comlink for frost before standing up. Artoo whistled at him from the charging station. “I’ll be back in a little while, Artoo.” He didn’t run to Mara’s quarters. She wasn’t in danger and she was already bringing her rage under control. Disgust was winning out. But something was wrong, confusion and trepidation bubbled under her disgust. And she was alerting security. Mara Jade did not alert security; she handled things herself. So he also didn’t waste time heading to the turbolift that reached her level.
Two security officers were already in her quarters by the time he reached them, questioning Mara and recording a holovid of the rooms. Mara’s voice had warmed up slightly as she spoke to the officers: Coruscant winter instead of Hoth. “I can’t explain that message any more than you can. I have never been to Columex; I can’t even tell you what sector it is in. If I have never been to a place, surely you understand why I can’t return there.” Her distrust was mixed with contempt.
“Trader Jade, any information you can give us will make it easier for us to find out who did this.”
Luke heard you idiots didn’t stop this as clearly as if she had shouted it. He moved through the foyer before she uttered her doubts about their competency out loud. “Mara? Are you alright?” He stopped short at the mess. The kitchen on his right was separated from the parlor by the counter that held the sink. All the cabinet doors hung open; their contents thrown to the floor, which shattered the dishes. Cloth ribbons festooned the overturned and broken furniture in the parlor. The ribbons had been ripped from larger cloth, and he realized it must have been her wardrobe when he recognized the flight suit sleeve draped over a lamp that was left on the wall next to the viewscreen. “Return to Columex” was graffitied on the fijisi wood paneled wall between the parlor and the bedroom and black ribbons were tacked to the wall underneath the largest phrase. “Leave Coruscant now, schutta. No one wants you here, Imperial whore” were repeated in smaller letters all over the wall.
She sighed as she turned to him, annoyed resignation briefly smothering the trepidation. The second security officer nearly dropped the holorecorder when he turned around in the bedroom door. “I’m fine. My wardrobe is non-existent now. Luckily, all work got left in my office and I didn’t bring any keepsakes here.” Her lightsaber hung from her waist. “I will have to renegotiate our plans. I have to go buy clothes—”
“And toiletries,” the security officer with the holorecorder added helpfully. “There’s nothing salvageable out of the mess in the ‘fresher.”
“And toiletries,” Mara repeated. “And find a new place to stay.” Exhaustion colored her voice as her apprehension grew stronger.
The security officer standing with Mara in the parlor looked up from his datapad. “We can assign you new quarters.”
“Thank you, but you couldn’t even stop this vandalism from happening. The only things I have left to wear are the clothes I’m currently standing in and a dance outfit from who knows which lower level that the perpetrator so thoughtfully left behind.” She waved her hand at the message, a nonchalant gesture hiding her disdain over the coward who wouldn’t fight her directly.
Luke looked at the ribbons again. Now he realized they weren’t torn but sewn in loops to wrap around a female’s breasts with a band and U-shaped ring to fit over the nipple like a target lock. The bottom half ribbons could be stepped into like basics but the ribbon wasn’t wide enough to cover a female’s genitalia. “That’s a dancer’s outfit?” he demanded. The outfit Jabba had forced Leia to wear had covered more skin.
“It is,” the security officer answered as his olive skin reddened. “In certain venues… in the lower levels… for particular clientele, Jedi Skywalker.”
Mara shook her head. “Sheltered upbringing on Tatooine I can understand. But how did you make it out of the military without anyone dragging you to a skin club?”
“All our bases were on unoccupied planets after I enlisted.” Her mood improved for the better with the chance to tease him, so he let her have the chance. It wasn’t fair that this happened just when she finished with the committee aggravation. Who would subject her to this violation?
The security officer looked back down at his datapad. “Have you given your key code to anyone?”
She gave the officer a withering glare. “No one has my key code, except me and you people who assigned it. I do not give my key codes out to anyone.” Her mind churned on did security give it away? Who in the New Republic hated her enough to do this?
“Of course, Trader Jade.” He made note of her answer on his datapad.
Her green eyes rolled before she looked at Luke again. “It doesn’t look like I’ll have time for supper tonight.”
“You still need to eat. I know you don’t want to go out after this.”
“The vandal emptied my conservator too, right on the kitchen floor. Not that I had much in it.” She shook her head. “But right now I’m more worried about where to go to sleep and what alarms should it have.”
“We can provide you with a guard on your new quarters,” the security officer offered.
She wasn’t hiding her doubt in their capabilities, but the officer wasn’t picking up on it. “Stay with me,” Luke offered before she gave the officer one of her scathing retorts that would enlighten him. Her eyes narrowed with distrust and now he rolled his eyes. “I have a guest room, and no one’s going to come after both of us.” He felt her brush against his emotions. But her suspicion found nothing to latch onto with his concerned sympathy, and her stare softened a bit. “It’ll save you a hotel fee until you find a new place.”
She huffed. “Fine, I’ll borrow your guest room until I see what the state of Coruscant’s real estate market is.” Exhaustion welled up inside her again, creating an inner sandstorm with anger and confusion.
“It keeps you from forcing me to accept a Noghri bodyguard.”
The security officer frowned at the mention of the species who still provided an honor guard over Leia and her twins. Luke didn’t care if it made the Imperial Palace security look bad; Thrawn had come too close to successfully kidnapping his sister, niece, and nephew multiple times. He would tell the Noghri about this breach. But to placate the security officers, he would offer his services. “I can attempt to sense anything about the perpetrator with psychometry.”
Mara’s attention focused on him, curiosity becoming a welcome distraction. “I don’t know that one.”
“It allows a Jedi to investigate the tenuous imprints of the Force left on objects when they are handled by living beings. I can try to sense something from whom did this if I can,” he glanced around the parlor and attached kitchen before grimacing at the dancing outfit, “touch that. It has to be something that only the perpetrator touched.”
“Sithspit, I hope he didn’t bring me a used dancing outfit.” Mara crossed her arms over her chest.
“We took scans of it already,” the security officer said. “No trace evidence on it. Feel free to touch it.”
Luke moved around the tipped over armchair and wrapped his hand around the black ribbon that would circle the wearer’s hips. He closed his eyes and focused. “Not human, I can’t identify the species and I’m not getting a visual of him. He’s nervous about doing this but greedy. There’s no malice in the act, he’s being paid to do it.” He blinked and let go. “I don’t know how helpful that is, sorry.”
“We’ll add it to the report,” the security officer tapped on his datapad. “Thank you, Jedi Skywalker.”
“You don’t need to stay around for this,” Mara said. Then she strengthened her shields but her mental voice added straight to his mind, I won’t hurt them over this fiasco, I promise.
“Okay. Meet at my quarters once you’re done shopping.” She nodded and Luke left. He waited until he was inside the turbolift before comming Khabarakh. He took the news gravely, accepted that the Son of Vader could handle his and Mara’s protection, and agreed to keep a closer watch on the twins. That conversation got him to Luke’s quarters’ door.
“Artoo, we’re going to have company for a while. Mara needs a place to stay.” He headed straight for his conservator. That would work for supper for two, but he didn’t have ingredients for a dessert course. He frowned. Mara never did order a dessert when they went out to eat. Maybe she wouldn’t mind?
The droid rolled to the kitchen doorway that led to the dining area of the parlor and whistled his question.
“Her quarters were vandalized and it’s not safe for her to be alone. So be nice.” The warble that followed was sarcastic enough to bring Luke’s head out of the conservator. “I mean it, Artoo. She hasn’t said anything about dismantling you since Myrkr, so you should let that go.”
The beep as Artoo rolled away was non-committal at best. Luke shook his head and pulled the ingredients from the shelves.