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16:2 GrS (19 BBY)
"You're Harry'potter, the bounty hunter."
She pronounced my name like that, like any number of species that use apostrophes instead of separating the two names like normal people. Twi'lek are that way on their homeworld. Sometimes I think they do things like this to make themselves sound more exotic or something.
You don't see very many bald human women these days. The occasional one is found, usually in the music or movie industries, but typically they tend to just have very close cropped hair. This one though, she was completely, unequivocally without a hair on her head, from what I could see, save for a set of very thin, highly arched, eyebrows.
The woman didn't wait to be asked before she slid onto the seat opposite me while I slid my drink to the side. From the pair of curved lightsaber hilts attached to her big circular belt buckle I assumed she was a Jedi of some type. Her eyes weren't the red/yellow most times associated with Sith, but that didn't really mean much while there was a war going on.
The Separatists tended to hire any sort of thug and that meant failed Jedi as well. I've seen it happen before, taken down two of them as well. They were between me and my bounty at the time, and they weren't too experienced defending against magic either. I've got the lightsaber hilts to prove it if you're the disbelieving sort. I like collecting things of an esoteric type. You never know when they'll come in handy.
"And you are?" I said as I raised my voice loud enough to be heard over the bad cantina music an out of date Bith band played.
Her seriously pale blue eyes tracked a beige-robed Bothan as he ashed his death stick while passing us. The sharp smell tended to stick around in the still air. Narsk was old and in the same business I was. He only took the easy jobs these days, because of his artificial leg. They cost serious credits to replace and his had been giving him trouble after taking a plasma arrow to the knee while on a particularly trying hunt.
The bald woman ignored my question in lieu of adjusting her own black hood to cover more of her face. "I'm told you can make people… disappear."
This was getting old. I didn't know how many times I'd been approached by Republic and Separatist spies. It was quick money, but there was no fun in altering someone's face and changing their skin color. Sometimes I was asked to make a talisman for less permanent changes, but that was about it. There was no challenge anymore in this galaxy.
"I've heard that too. Depends on whom, not to mention how much you're willing to pay."
Her eyes narrowed when she scowled. It wasn't a pretty sight. As long as her face was neutral she was what I would call exotic looking. Good for a one night stand or even a spaceport fling now and again, but not much else. It's the exotic ones that are seriously ugly when they get older. I mean one minute you're thinking that you've hit the jackpot, because she's got a hot body and can swallow your goods while she's breathing out the side of her neck, and the next thing you know it's ten years later and you're waking up next to a Hutt. For the most part I leave the exotic ones alone – unless there's neck breathing going on. A wizard's got to have his standards.
"Depends on the quality of your work," she shot back at me.
I shrugged and twirled my wand underneath the table. Her skin went a dark shade of black, that really dark black that almost looks purple in the right light. She jerked and stared, virtually stunned, at her fingertips poking out of her gloves. When she pulled up her robe up baring one of her arms I got the reaction I was looking for.
"Not me," she bit off harshly. "I want someone dead, liquefied, shot out of a Corellian Light-Cruiser's waste hold, and floating in the Maw."
Giving a reverse swirl with the wand I returned her natural skin tone to the pale white it was before. If I didn't know any better I'd say she was pureblooded Dathomirian, but they were wiped out a couple of years back. I know; I was there hiding out from the orbital bombardment in a cave. Maybe she was off planet at the time. It happens. Not too often, since they tend to stick to their homeworld.
"Oh," I said. "Well then. That's something completely different."
Flipping my free hand off the table, I made a show of slowly reaching down to my utility belt and extracted a single red stone before setting it on the table between us.
"This is a truthstone. Its function is simple enough and probably self-explanatory. Tell a lie and it glows red, very soon thereafter things get unpleasant. Is your occupation in law enforcement or possibly with the Jedi?"
Her pale eyes lifted from the stone in recognition. That pretty much cemented her heritage in my mind. I learned how to make it out on Dathomir.
I've yet to encounter a species the truthstone doesn't work on. Considering her origins, no glow was good enough for me.
"I've been known to… remove certain people, but there are some that I won't touch. What's the name of the mark?"
A snort worked its way out before I had a chance to stop. "Dooku? The leader of the Separatists? The Sith Dooku?"
She was serious. That was bad. I've lived this long because I know my limits. The days of going head to head with people that like to call themselves Dark Lord are long past.
"Just out of curiosity's sake, how much is the assassination of a Darth running these days?"
Her eyes tracked to the left again as another beige-robed figure walked past the table. You're really hard-pressed to find any other color on this planet. Sometimes cloaks run in brown, but for the most part people like beige.
"I have access to twenty-million Republic credits."
That wasn't a number to scoff at, but I wasn't really interested. "Credits don't really mean much on the Outer Rim with transaction trails and such. You're on Tatooine. We deal in gold, precious metals, jewels, spacecraft… or esoteric items that can't be found at every port on the Rim."
She grit her teeth and hissed as she revealed that scowl again, but then the tension showing on her face eased. "I have access to a heavily modified Star Courier: solar ionization canons, point five rated hyperdrive, Stygium cloaking device, thrust trace dampeners, and much more. It was worth fifty-five million credits when it was new and it's never been in a single battle."
That got my attention. I needed a new ship and that one sounded sweet; small, heavily armed, and with a cloaking device. However, that sounded a little too good to be true.
"And how quickly would I be detained by Republic forces when they found out it was stolen?"
The woman leaned back, a bored look dropping over her face. "If you can't change a registry and fake a bill of sale then obviously I have the wrong person for the job."
It was true. Like I said before, this was the Outer Rim, in Hutt Space no less. If it wasn't stolen and passed off as legitimate under scrutiny in the first place, your reputation was crap. That's pretty much how I acquired my first ship.
"Will you do it or not?"
Kill a Sith Lord? It was probably a revenge thing. Then it finally clicked as to who I was talking to. "I'm not an assassin, but I can get you close enough to do the job yourself, Miss Ventress."
Her hands slid onto her lap, probably very close to her lightsabers. "I was told…"
"Your sources misunderstand. I've killed some very powerful people, but they're the ones that sought me out, or ones that had a legitimate bounty on their heads. What I can do is get you into his presence, within a single meter if you want, without him knowing. The rest is up to you."
"He's Sith. He'll sense our presence – your presence at least. I am talented enough to mask my own."
"As am I." Taking the truthstone I returned it to my pouch. "Miss Ventress, I know you to be a singularly talented individual. Going head to head with a number of Jedi and walking away, much less killing – what is it now? Five, six?"
That brought me up short. My own surprise was evident. "I stand corrected. Anyway, Dooku has a reputation with his lightsaber. I have… well friends would be too much – business acquaintances would be better, that have been cut down by him, not to mention that little trick he has with the blue lightning out of his fingertips."
"The rumor was that you didn't fear anything," she said.
I didn't take the bait. "My point is that it would be my pleasure to help you… dispose of the Count. The trouble is knowing where he'll be next. I assume you have access to this knowledge."
Reaching into her jerkin beneath her robes, Ventress pulled out a data pad and thumbed up the display before sliding it across the table. I glanced at it for a moment and recognized the floor plan to the monastery of the B'omarr Order, otherwise known in these parts as Jabba the Hutt's Palace.
The monks that built the place wanted to detach themselves from the universe, and they did. When they achieved a certain level of training and enlightenment they'd have their brains surgically removed and placed in these round containers, where they were hooked up to some type of life support to keep it functional. This was so they could achieve total sensory detachment and contemplate whatever it is bodiless brains contemplate.
Occasionally they like to move around, and their containers are placed in a giant spider like exoskeleton. That creeped me out the first time I saw one moving about.
Jabba is a fairly decent source of income when he's not being a sloth-like ass, which is becoming more of a thing these days. There's nothing worse than a crime boss who's bored, fat, and has a fetish for Twi'lek slave girls. Tatooine, while being a desert shithole, used to be known as a hub for smugglers and bounty hunters to congregate and seek work. These days it's more of a place to get shot for marginally offending someone. It's really gone downhill since Jabba stopped making public appearances. Assassination attempts; they come and go. I give it a couple more years and he'll be out there leaving slime trails behind him once again.
"Tricky, but not by any means impossible," I said passing the datapad back. "You just can't get caught."
"No, you don't understand. Jabba likes to make examples of anyone that breaks into his palace. The Order of B'omarr is still active in the bowels of that place. They pay rent to Jabba by randomly transplanting brains of trespassers into other random bodies. Screw up and you can only hope you wind up in the body of a humanoid."
One of her eyebrows lifted.
"I once knew a Falleen Black Sun gangster whose brain wound up in the head of a Twi'lek prostitute. Jabba sold him to a rival syndicate at a discount. The point is, if you're caught, you might want to think about just blowing your head off… if that's where your brain is I mean."
You couldn't take these sorts of things for granted in this galaxy.
"Perhaps I've come to the wrong person," she said dryly. "You're far too neurotic for my tastes."
"Just cautious; it's a reasonable trait considering my choice in occupation."
"Yes or no?" Ventress was beginning to get impatient. "Dooku will be here in less than a week to negotiate safe passage for Separatist vessels with the Hutt."
My gut said to pass on the job, but my aging hyperdrive said do it or I'll scatter your pieces across the Corellian Hyperspace Route. There was a reason I was semi-stranded on this planet.
She relaxed her posture, but kept a steely glare on me. "If you can accomplish this then I'll have two more missions for you."
That one was easy to figure out, considering battles between two specific Jedi and the assassin Asajj Ventress were all over the HoloNews every other day. "I'll have to decline on those, I'm afraid. Messing with Jedi is bad Karma. I'm gathering that you already know this and this is why you've sought outside assistance."
The mere mention of the word assistance seemed to grate on her nerves. I had a feeling she was used to being self-sufficient. "Docking bay thirteen; one hour. We will determine a plan of action as soon as possible."
There really wasn't much to plan. Dooku would most likely be by himself inside the palace, if the rumors of his arrogance held true. Bib Fortuna and a couple of Gamorreans would escort him to Jabba's showroom for the inevitable posturing on both sides. The bulk of guards, bounty hunters, and so forth would be in that room, so it was to our advantage to take care of things right at the beginning. Apparate in, hack and slash, Disapparate out, collect the ship, and make myself scarce for a couple of years until Jabba cools down and enough to see reason.
The Hutts, while having a long memory for those that embarrass them, are more pragmatic in the end. I'm much more valuable as an asset than as an enemy; then again it might be me that's the arrogant one. Besides, it wasn't that long ago when the Sith had his son kidnapped for leverage on this very same issue. He might just pat me on the back for disposing of an annoying problem.
When I eventually rounded on docking bay thirteen I found a very sleek ship. The command module was a globe in the rear, saddled by two folded tie wings, and a long nose up front. It was difficult to imagine that all the specs she listed were crammed into a twenty-five to thirty meter long ship, but it looked state of the art. I'd definitely have to get under the bonnet and take a look around.
With a glance at my chrono I looked over to the loading ramp where Ventress was standing with her arms by her sides. "Thirty-seven seconds? You're not going to be this anal in the future, are you?"
She looked toward the blast doors that led to Mos Espa's streets and then jerked her thumb to the interior of the ship. "Inside."
"The longer my presence goes unnoticed, the less likelihood Dooku will be alerted beforehand."
The inside was nice and clean, but small: four doors on one side and three on the other. Down the center was a closed door that I assumed led to storage and/or maintenance crawl spaces. Ventress tapped the control for the boarding ramp and then turned to tap another control to open the center door on the right, a lift.
She kept mostly quiet while we ascended to the upper of only two decks. I did notice that she spent that short amount of time looking me over, probably for hidden weapons. When the lift door slid open, Ventress stepped out while I took at the passenger area, consisting of a few seats with a holo transmitter situated in the middle. To the right were the pilot's console and only one chair on rails.
"Where did you acquire the truthstone?"
It was natural that she would recognize something from her home planet, but there were problems that came along with this knowledge.
"Dathomir. I spent some time with a couple of clans there for a few years."
Ventress scoffed. "I doubt that."
After shifting my utility belt so it would be more comfortable, I dropped down on the furthest most seat away from the lift and stretched my legs out. "Four years with the Singing River Clan, while I learned Paecian, and a few months with the Nightsisters. Augwynne Djo, of Singing River, liked me well enough, just as long as I kept having sex with her daughter and taught them some of my skills. Talzin of the Nightsisters was impressed by me, but Old Daka wouldn't hear of having a man learn any of their lore, even one that could match her spell for spell."
Speaking to her in Paesian seemed to shut her up about that particular topic, but hearing that I actually spent time in the Nightsister stronghold and was still alive probably threw her off.
"A male witch? There is no such thing."
I shrugged. "That you know about. It's not like a stern matriarchal society would come right out and say that inferior men occasionally had the same powers as they did. That's where rebellions are born."
That revelation seemed to shift her into a different mindset as she took me in once more.
The Witches of Dathomir were severely matriarchal. That may sound odd, seeing as most of the time the males of a species were physically stronger. The likelihood of women being in charge to the point of men being treated like second or even third class citizens was improbable. Testosterone seems to be a universal hormone which allows men the advantage, except where things like the Force or Magic come into play.
That's what I walked into when Allaya Djo dropped an incredibly strong net over me as I was running away from a particularly large rampaging rancor. The next thing I knew I was waking up in a cave with her on top of me declaring that she had captured me fair and square; I was claimed by her as her husband. Of course I didn't understand a word she was saying at the time. All I knew was I in a pretty comfortable bed with an equally pretty woman bouncing up and down on me.
It took a few months to figure out the language enough to realize what I had gotten myself into.
"Is this how you plan to infiltrate the Hutt's palace? It won't work. Dooku can smell Force magic."
"Seeing as how I'm not a Force sensitive, I don't use the Force."
Ventress scowled at me again. I think this was becoming a regular thing, and it was giving her unattractive frown lines. "Even I know where the Witches power is derived from, Harry'potter. Don't think me ignorant about the ways of my ancestors."
This was one of the arguments I frequently got into with some of the witches on Dathomir. They called upon deities to grant them powers. With a little research I found them to be Force deities, or rather the light and the dark sides of the Force, a mystical power that is very similar to magic in a lot of ways.
"Well, believe what you like. I'm not here to debate the subject. I believe we have a plan to put together."
After giving me a measured look, Ventress pulled out her datapad and punched up a holo of Jabba's Palace on the table in front of me.
"I assume you have been inside," she said.
"Many times. Jabba will be down here on the lower level, surrounded by enough firepower to make things decidedly uncomfortable. The better odds are right here past the blast door at the entrance."
Some unintelligible grunt came out from her throat. "He'll be surrounded by IG-100 MagnaGuard's up until he enters. Not that I couldn't take care of them, but it would make things more difficult if I have to watch them and Dooku."
I shook my head. "We wait until the blast doors close, cutting them off from us. The most we'll have to worry about is a few Gamorrean guards."
She raised her sharp eyebrow to me once more. "And how do you propose to manage our escape afterward."
Her scowl returned. "Details, Harry'potter."
There wasn't a word in Galactic Basic for Apparition, so I improvised. "Teleportation. That's how we'll go in as well. We'll…"
"Ridiculous! Only the most powerful of the Nightsisters is even capable of such a feat."
This wasn't going to work if she second-guessed every little thing I claimed I could do. What she said was true, from her point of view. The only Nightsister that I knew of who could teleport was Talzin, the leader. An example was in order. Standing abruptly, I held out my hand as Ventress took a step away from me.
"We're not going to get anywhere with you doubting my talents. Let me show you a few things and then maybe you'll understand."
Her eyes dropped to my hand as her brow wrinkled with distaste, probably from the thought of touching me. I didn't know whether to be insulted or not.
"It'll only work for us both if you have a firm grasp on my forearm… or anywhere else, I suppose," I explained.
Pressing her lips together, she reached out and clutched my arm. "Very well."
"The ride is somewhat nauseating. Exhale before, and don't try to inhale until we've arrived. Ready?"
I twisted a little, away from her until I saw she'd emptied her lungs, and then I turned, Disapparating away. Choosing a place to reappear wasn't too difficult. Tatooine isn't very populated out in the open sands, but I wanted to be close enough to Mos Espa so she would recognize the settlement. When we reappeared, I watched as her eyes narrowed against the suns while she sucked in a strained breath from the unsettling feeling of the teleportation.
When I pointed toward Mos Espa her head jerked up, but she didn't have a single thing to say.
"My idea is to wait until Dooku arrives and then teleport into Jabba's Palace, right at the entrance. Cloak us like this," I said as I whacked myself over the head with my wand tip and virtually disappeared from her sight. "And then wait until his back is to us for you to do your thing. I assume you'll be using your lightsabers at some point."
While I was speaking, she held out a hand and felt for my presence, eventually brushing against my arm. Intense envy was crossing her face. I could see where this little trick could have come in handy over her career as an assassin for the Sith.
"I'll cover your back while you purée the Count to your satisfaction and then we'll teleport directly back to the ship and leave the planet. I wouldn't suggest returning for the conceivable future. Jabba is pretty paranoid about his security and the few times that it fails."
When we returned to the ship, Ventress eyed my wand as she sat to regain her composure. "Is that cloaking token from Dathomir as well?"
I disappeared my wand back in its place, up my sleeve. "It's a focus, not a token and I can make it do a lot more than make us disappear."
"I could still see you," she said begrudgingly. "Admittedly, it was difficult."
With a nod, I stretched out my legs again. "It's called Disillusionment; very good for low light stealth action, but not much else. Your lightsabers won't be masked once you ignite them, so make your timing count."
Watching her like this I could tell the wheels were spinning in her head, probably about all the chaos the two of us could cause, or maybe revenge on someone else that had ticked her off.
"Very well, Harry'potter. I agree to your plan. Dooku's ship is scheduled to arrive at nightfall. I would suggest we be in place a few hours before so as to not attract undue attention… unless you have some sort of way in knowing when he arrives."
I did, but she didn't need to know that. Revealing my ability to appear anywhere while invisible was exposing more than enough secrets as it was.
"Sounds good to me. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to get on with falsifying a decent transaction trail for the ship, so I don't get nabbed by any Republic patrols."
Ventress nodded as her eyes slid away.
"By the way, where did you get it – so I can avoid that particular space port in the future?"
"Naboo," she replied.