Laurel Chase was not what Mary expected.
Although Alex had described her to be a fearsome creature whose beauty could make men lose all good sense, it was not quite the same as seeing the woman in person for the first time. They had been intercepted by a number of Black Sun members in a Skimmer prior to arriving at the settlement. The leader of the group was Selonian, one of the two worlds that made up the Corellian star system. Like all natives of that world, she was reptilian. She stood slight taller than Alex, a sleek, slender creature with rows of serrated teeth and a powerful body, covered in indigo scales, made for attack. Alex identified her quickly as Glorith Dar, the bounty hunter whom had stolen Stephen away from them.
Considering what his supposed death had done to her life, Mary held herself in remarkable restraint upon learning this. She showed Glorith no indication that the Selonian was known to her, launching instead into the carefully rehearsed speech they had concocted regarding their reasons for seeking out Black Sun. Whether or not Glorith believed their story about seeking work was uncertain because the bounty hunter was unwilling to make any decision until they were brought before Laurel Chase herself. After being ushered onto the Skimmer surrounded by Black Sun's operatives, they were driven to its headquarters.
The Domicile as the others referred to it resembled something out of a fairy tale. It sat on a high cliff, a fortress perched above sharp rocks with jagged architecture that made it look as harsh as the organization it was home too. Tall spires and needle like towers sat against the deep velvet skyline and simply staring at it had made Mary shudder. There was no way into the structure other than through the massive doors that had been erected into base of the cliff. Although Mary did not believe in any structure being absolutely impregnable, she had to admit that it was quite formidable and would take some heavy firepower to breach.
The journey to what passed for Laurel's main court gave Mary even graver concerns for their successful retrieval of Stephen. There were guards everywhere and the place was like a maze of catacombs, with distant voices of creatures growling loudly. Some of them sounded like screams, others like tortured sounds of wailing while some were just full of fist pounding fury that made Mary shudder just hearing it. She wondered what produced those noises and decided that she was not all that eager to find out. She just needed to find Stephen and get him out of here.
If he still lived.
When they were finally ushered into Laurel Chase's audience chamber, Mary felt as if she were stepping into the royal court on Coruscant. Surrounding them was finery in the best and most luxurious form. Expensive silks covered the upholstery; soft large cushions inhabited by handsome beautiful men, with vacant expressions lay on top of expensive carpeting. Fine marble made up the floor and pieces of valuable artwork hung on the embroidery-covered walls. Laurel herself was dressed in a sweeping gown, a crimson red that matched the color of her painted lips and she sat awaiting them on a chair that looked undeniably like a throne. In this place, Mary had no doubt this woman saw herself a queen and possibly behaved in such a manner too. Mary also noticed that Laurel was lounging gracefully in the chair, stroking a small, furry creature on her lap. Mary had never seen anything like it and she wondered what its origins were.
Laurel Chase was in Mary's opinion, the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Although her beauty had been described as extraordinary prior to their first encounter, Mary did not realise how much until she actually saw the woman for herself. It was no wonder why men were powerless by her when even Mary found herself overwhelmed. Everything about Laurel exuded raw, sexual power that was enchanting to men as well as women. She had the kind of face, both sultry and angelic, which made for a very dangerous combination if the mind behind it was as sadistic and ruthless as Laurel was reputed to be. Her effect on Alex was the same and for a few seconds, Mary found herself gawking stupidly at Laurel, trying to imagine what it must be like to wake up every morning with the face of a goddess.
Laurel studied Mary for a moment, trying to break her down into pieces by simple observation. The mahogany haired siren cast her emerald gaze on the new arrivals and decided that she was uncertain of what they were. Normally, such an action would mean their instant elimination but there was something about them that gave her pause. "Who are these guests you've brought to me Glorith?" Laurel asked smoothly, her eyes still fixed on Mary, trying to size her up.
"They say they are looking for work," Glorith responded, her voice was no more than a raspy hiss. "I do not trust them," the Selonian turned to give them a hard stare through slitted yellow eyes.
"And why not?" Laurel asked smoothly. "They look perfectly lethal."
"Because of their ship," Glorith stated firmly.
"The slipstream?" the leader of Black Sun eyed her reptilian associate.
Mary and Alex exchanged glances, feeling a pang of apprehension when they realised that perhaps Glorith recognized the Tracker as being Vin Tanner's ship. However, for the sake of their continued existence, neither made comment and hid the fact that Glorith's accusation held any concern for them. How the next minutes played out would decide whether or not they lived out the night or died where they stood.
"Its registration has been altered but I know it anywhere," Glorith glared at them, no longer facing Laurel at all. "It is Tanner's ship."
"Vin Tanner the bounty hunter?" Laurel asked, her brow arching slightly.
"It is Tanner's ship," Alex spoke up before anything else could be said. "I took it from him."
"No body takes Tanner's ship," Glorith spat in disbelief. "He is the best there is."
"He was the best there is but he's a wanted man these days," Alex stared at the Selonian, prepared to do all the talking because she would rather the attention be taken off Mary. "A man with a death mark tends to go to ground, especially one who has made the friends he has."
"Explain." Laurel stared at Alex hard. "And believe me, your answer weighs very heavily on your future."
"Obviously," Alex said confidently, "your Selonian is out of touch with Guild gossip. Tanner has been on Imperial wanted lists for the last three months. Apparently, he's joined the Rebellion."
"That is a lie!" Glorith hissed. "Tanner was the best bounty hunter in the Guild. He would not go soft."
"He's done worse than that," Alex revealed triumphantly. "He's become a Jedi apprentice."
"I will tear out your tongue for that insult to one of my kind." Glorith sprang at Alex. The rebel operative dropped to her knees as the Selonian came at her, allowing Glorith to sail over her head. Alex stood up and spun around quickly, slamming the heel of her boot into the small of the Selonian's back, sending her sprawling. Guards moved to intervene but a quick gesture from Laurel halted them in their steps. Without giving Glorith chance to recover, Alex leapt on top of the Selonian, her knee connecting with her back and sending her falling face first onto the marble floor. Alex kept her pinned to the hard surface, her legs resting on the Selonian's forearms, while her hands kept her head pressed to the floor and unable to get up. It was no easy effort keeping the voracious bounty hunter down but Alex had a feeling that if she could manage that, she might convince Laurel that they were worth keeping alive.
"Glorith," Laurel remarked indifferently. "If you are done squirming. Perhaps you'll now learn the wisdom of letting our guest finish." She turned to Alex and said with equal dispassion. "Now, please. I am most intrigued by this idea that a bounty hunter of Tanner's reputation having chosen to change his spiritual affiliations."
"Only if you can ensure your lap dog doesn't try to tear out my friends throat when she's not looking," Mary said firmly. Although their weapons had been liberated before they had reached this audience chamber, Mary injected enough force into her voice to make her words sound like a formidable threat not to be ignored.
Laurel crooked the corner of her lip into a faint smile and regarded Glorith. "Glorith you will behave for now." She gave the minion a sharp look, which held no illusions for anyone present what the punishment would be if she were disobeyed. Glorith hissed angrily at Alex, baring her teeth in fury for this humiliating position she now found herself but nodded slightly in an indication of subservience to her mistress. Alex noting her acknowledgment of Laurel's demand, released her grip on the Selonian. Glorith rolled onto her feet and took a step towards Alex, appearing as if she might attack when Laurel's voice cut through the air sharply.
"Glorith. I will not tell you again," Laurel repeated herself.
The Selonian narrowed her eyes at Alex and a low hiss escaped her throat. No doubt, Alex had earned Glorith's undying hatred for humiliating her in front of her mistress. However, for now she would obey Laurel's demand for she had no wish to incur her wrath.
She knew first hand how fatal that could be.
"Continue." Laurel turned back to the new arrivals in her court.
"Tanner and I are 'friends'," Alex declared, making up her story as she went and hoping that it was good enough to pass. She glanced at Glorith briefly before adding, "intimate friends."
"Intimate friends?" Laurel smiled. "Lovers?"
Alex swallowed and thanked God that obnoxious Jedi apprentice was nowhere in sight to hear this before continuing. "Yes, casual lovers. The man is quite exceptional in that area, other than being an excellent bounty hunter. Considering the radical course of career he was about to embark upon, at our last meeting he confessed his intention to disappear and I offered to buy his ship. He felt it to be an uncomfortable reminder of what he used to be and was more than ready to relinquish it for a little monetary recompense."
"I see and your companion?" Laurel pointed a sharp eye at Mary.
"I speak for myself," Mary spoke up before Alex could. "My name is Koryander of Mystral."
Laurel stared at Mary for a few seconds, trying to determine whether or not she was lying. The face standing before her was glacial in its control, which corroborated the strict regimen of Mystral training. They were the best bodyguards in the galaxy save the Jedi Knights themselves and certainly more accessible since services as a bodyguard was the world's main source of income. One had to be an Imperial governor or someone of immense wealth to be able to afford a Mystral in one's service. Unfortunately, the order tended to be selective about whom it chose to as their employers and thus, Laurel had never been able to acquire the services of one and was quite pleased by the idea of that changing.
"You are a long way from Emberlane," she pointed out. "Why seek me out?"
"I have no wish to serve a man," Mary declared defiantly. "And for this I have been ejected from the order."
"I see," Laurel nodded, understanding a great deal better than she let on. The Mystral considered the protection of their charges a sacred trust, to violate that meant a disgrace upon them all. She had no doubt that this Mystral was not just ejected but also permanently exiled. That made the prospect of having one in her stable of lethal employees all the more attractive. Still Laurel was not one to take anything on face value and would nevertheless keep her eye on this woman with the unreadable eyes for the time being. "And you wish to come into my service, why?" she asked.
"You seem worthy of my talents," Mary replied with an air of superior arrogance. In the background, she heard some of Laurel's guards snort in derision at the remark while the male members of her court seem to enjoy the encounter with nothing more than insipid smirks on their faces.
A rueful smile crossed the lips of the dark haired siren and she responded in that smooth as silk voice that had no doubt beguiled many in her time. "How refreshingly confident."
"In my profession, it is wise to be so," Mary stated proudly and then added. "As women, it is often easy to underestimate us. Males tend to believe that even though we can kill as well as any of them, we still lack the mental capability to be complete equals."
"Yes they do," Laurel agreed, Mary's word striking a chord inside her. She had used her face to get her everything she wanted and knew that much of her success was her ability to play men who thought that she was the sum of her beauty. They had never expected that the intellect behind her emerald colored eyes was far more formidable than her beauty. Those who had underestimated her had paid dearly for it. She had seen to that. "And you?" she turned to Alex. "Other than your predilection for bounty hunters and an impressive ability to best my trusted Selonian ally, what is reason here?"
"I'm just here for the work," Alex said cockily. "My name is unimportant but they call me the Knife."
"I've heard of you," Laurel nodded in recognition. "You're reputation precedes you. You're one of the best assassins in the galaxy."
"Thank you," Alex said graciously. In her line of work, she had a number of identities ready for use in such instances like this. She had encountered the real Knife six months ago in the Hapes Consortium, attempting to kill one of the planetary rulers. The Knife had not walked away from their meeting and Alex had claimed the dead assassin's identity as one of many the rebel operative sometime employed for varying purposes. Over the course of the last six months, Alex had maintained the Knife's identity, acquiring docking bays in that name and making appearances in selected venues, calling herself the Knife. Since the assassin was somewhat elusive and the only thing really known about her was the fact that she was female, Alex was allowed a certain amount of freedom in her charade.
Mary was also utilising one of these identities. Koryander of Mystral was in truth, a member of the Rebel Alliance and had not been seen abroad for some time. The order did not take kindly to inquiries regarding their own, especially one who was disgraced, thus Laurel had very little chance of finding out that Mary was other than what she claimed to be. The nature of assassins and bodyguards alike ensured that they remained in the shadows, seen by few, remembered by even less. Those who usually could put a name to a face never lived long enough to point it out in a crowd. If she were truly determined, Alex held no illusions that Laurel would not uncover the truth sooner or later but by then both Alex and Mary had every intention of being well out of Black Sun's clutches.
"Let us come to the point." Alex took a step forward and immediately saw Laurel's personal guard react by raising their weapons, preparing to intercept her. "My companion and I have heard of your reputation and the growing eminence of your organization. There are rumors that you will soon be in a position to challenge Nal Hutta. My friend needs work and I am weary of the assassins game, I believe we can be of use to you. If you feel otherwise, we'll go as we came, peacefully."
Laurel eased back into her throne and kept her eyes fixed on both women, scrutinizing them deeply and knew that there was something about the Mystral that she could not put her finger on, even though she believed their desire to join Black Sun was genuine. Still, Laurel always liked a mystery and something told her that there were hidden depths to Koryander of Mystral that might be worth the fleeting distraction of uncovering.
"Well it seems I cannot refuse an offer like that, can I?" The woman stared at Alex and for the briefest hint of a second, the rebel operative thought she had been looking into the eyes of rancor.
"We're hoping not," Alex responded, shaking the thought out of her head.
"Mistress, you cannot trust them!" Glorith barked angrily, glaring at Alex with unconcealed hatred.
"Glorith," Laurel answered her minion without even looking in the Selonian's direction. "Your next words will be your last if you question my judgement again."
Mary saw Glorith pale, if it was even possible for a Selonian with scales to manage such an effort. However, the fear in her eyes was apparent and the Selonian seemed to shrink back in terror. The rebel leader wondered what in the stars about Laurel Chase could engender that much fear from a creature as vicious as a Selonian. She prayed inwardly that Stephen did not know the answer. The fear was not just from Glorith but from every one in the room, from the armed guards to the members of her harem. It ran so thick in the room, it felt like a physical presence and something inside Mary told her that they had proceed very carefully around the leader of Black Sun. There were few people who could engender this much fear. The Emperor was one of them, Darth Vader was another, did Laurel Chase make it a triad?
"You will bring your ship here," Laurel instructed Alex. "And then we will keep you both on retainer. If I like what I see, we'll talk about making your involvement in Black Sun more permanent. If not," her eyes became as cold as dark star. "You will wish you never heard of us."
Alex met Mary's gaze and they both thought the same thing; she was not lying.
The Rogue jumped out of hyperspace a fair distance from Orron 3 in order to avoid detection by any sensor equipment that Black Sun might have to monitor incoming ships. With no idea how Mary and Alex intended to infiltrate the organization, the Rogue's arrival might complicate their plans or at worst, place them in danger. Buck had claimed that he would have no difficulty penetrating any sensor devices in place when the time came for them to make a surface landing but he would have to know what he was up against first before making the attempt. His ship had been outfitted with sophisticated scanner detection equipment since he had become a full fledged member of the Rebel Alliance because he was often using the vessel to run their errands and carry out important missions.
"Can you detect anything yet?" Josiah asked as he stood over Buck's shoulder following their entry into normal space.
"Oh yeah," Buck nodded in affirmative, his scanners directed at the planet were picking up a number of readings. "The sky is hot. I've got multi-phasic sensors and a protection grid. That planet may be full of farmers but the hardware surrounding it says go away."
"Can you get through?" Chris asked.
"The protection grids have fluctuations every 0.56 seconds in certain sections of the planetary shield. If I do this real careful like, I can slip through one of them."
"They occur every 2 hours Mr Wilmington," Ezra added. "I suggest we take point behind that small moon until then. The gravitational wells out to keep us cloaked for the time being."
Buck looked over his shoulder at the Imperial commander. "Not bad for a bridge officer."
"Any sign of my ship?" Vin called out from the next room. The apprentice was once again attempting to assemble his lightsabre and this time had made more progress than earlier efforts. He had constructed part of the power supply unit and was attempting to build the casing around it.
"Nope," Buck sang out before adding playfully. "Guess you'll just have to wait until you see your girlfriend again to ask her what she did with it."
"She ain't my girlfriend!" Vin roared back, much to the amusement of those listening in the cockpit.
"What pray tell is so funny?" Ezra asked when he saw Nathan, JD, Josiah and Buck laughing out loud Even Chris was sniggering a little.
"We're not quite sure yet," Buck chuckled. "But its got to be good, we get a rise like this out of him every time the girl's name is mentioned."
"Very funny," Vin retorted, hearing the conversation. "And I'm sure you just as thrilled that Inez is dating Ezra."
Buck's expression turned into a scowl when he saw Ezra looking at him with question. "Is there a problem, Mr Wilmington?" the Imperial captain asked. His voice though polite, sounded taut.
Buck looked over his shoulder and though Vin was out of his line of sight, managed to glare fiercely in that direction nonetheless.
"No problem," Buck said betraying nothing, though he did not meet the gazes of his friends around him. They had all been privy to his ramblings the last few weeks regarding Inez's relationship with Ezra Standish and knew that he was lying through his teeth. However, none of them would comment and somehow managed to be looking elsewhere during the awkward moment.
"If there is something between you two that I am unaware of ....," Ezra persisted, not wishing to be any unresolved feelings on this matter. Inez meant a lot to him and though he would be sad to have her leave his life, he would not stand in the way if her affections had been promised elsewhere to begin with.
"No," Buck said through gritted teeth, hating to expose his jealousy but knew that Ezra was waiting for an answer. "There's nothing, except that I expect you to take good care of her."
"I had always intended to," Ezra declared firmly. "She's a remarkable woman and I would not dream of toying with her affections for me."
"Ezra's a gentlemen with the ladies," Nathan said in his best friend's defense. "He's just a complete bastard in a sabaac game."
"Thank you," Ezra gave Nathan, who was grinning at him, a look. "With friends like you, I do not need enemies."
"Just don't hurt her," Buck said seriously. "She deserves more than I was able to give her, I expect you do better."
"You have my word of honor," Ezra returned earnestly, meaning it.
"Buck," JD spoke up, interrupting the moment when all of a sudden, a light started flashing on his side of the cockpit controls. "I'm detecting something."
"What?" Chris demanded before Buck could answer.
"It's a large sub-space distortion....," JD started to say. "Right on top of us."
"Fire thrusters at maximum and get us out of here NOW!" Ezra barked
"I got you!" Buck did not have to think twice and fired the Rogue's thrusters.
The Corellian freighter surged forward and though none of them saw it, they heard the scatter of light saber parts on the deck from the abrupt burst, followed by a series of profanities uttered in quick succession by Vin Tanner. They were all hanging onto something to keep from falling over as the ship blasted forward. The Rogue left the space it formerly occupied and sped towards the safety of the moon in orbit around Orron 3. The area behind them shimmered, like the stars had appeared merely painted on the velvet canvas and was rippling in the breeze.
"What the hell just happened?" Vin entered the cockpit.
"Subspace distortion," Buck quickly answered as his hands flew over the controls, ensuring that they had made good their abrupt departure.
"A distortion of that size and intensity can only be caused by one thing," Ezra explained, watching the readings on the consoles with just as much concentration as the pilot. "A ship emerging from hyperspace."
"A big ship coming out of hyperspace," Nathan added, coming to the same conclusion although not as rapidly as Ezra. Then again, Ezra had always been a good warship tactician, although the lackluster attention to his career had always kept him from getting his own command of one.
The Rogue's rear scanners revealed what would have emerged right on top of them if Ezra had not acted when he did. The Star Destroyer materialized in the screen before them, a giant leviathan moving soundlessly through the vacuum. The stars seemed to streak from it, as it appeared, its white grey hull a stark contrast against the black. While it was certainly not a super Star Destroyer like they had seen in orbit around Zhar recently, it was a heavy cruiser carrying at least four squadrons of TIE fighters and capable of planetary bombardment. She was heavily armored which made her more or less invulnerable against one small freighter.
"Get us behind the moon and shut down on all our engines," Ezra continued to issue orders and Buck took them readily because the man had a better knowledge of Imperial warships than he did.
"Standard procedure for warships is to scan the system for enemy vessels," Ezra continued to speak. "You are not dealing with protection grids that wait until you get into proximity to detect you. Warship sensors are far more sensitive, if there is so much as a particle of dust that should not be where it is, they will find it. Our best bet is to stay behind the moon and also get as close to the surface as you can manage without actually landing. The readings radiating from the moon will cloak the ship."
"What are they doing so far out?" Vin asked. "I thought big cruisers like this usually hung around the core systems or protect the main space lanes."
"That's pretty obvious," Chris said grimly. "They're for Stephen Travis."
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