Aria made a sharp turn as she spotted an information terminal situated at the edge of the walkway. She pushed her way through the sparse foot traffic to reach the terminal and immediately plugged in her small datapad.
"What are you doing?" Carth's voice called from just behind her.
She set her lips in a thin line, debating whether or not she should waste the time it would take to answer him. At last she decided that even if he didn't trust her, she still needed his help and she might as well let him in on her plans, "Downloading a map of this place."
"Looking for something in particular?"
He's acting like nothing happened! Typical. He accuses me of being a spy and a saboteur, and he expects me to pretend he never said it. Ha. Not a chance in hell.
"A cantina." she replied, her voice terse.
She heard him sigh heavily in annoyance. Good. Get used to it, flyboy. It's going to be this way for a long time.
"Why do we need a cantina?"
She unplugged her datapad as the download completed and turned to him, "Weren't you listening? We need some way to get down into the Undercity. The swoop gangs there will probably know more than anyone about Bastila's location. But our good friends, the Sith, aren't going to let just anyone down there. We need a disguise."
He crossed his arms, "And the cantina is going to provide us with one?"
"No. But I'm hoping someone there will know where I can get one." With that she brushed past him, glanced at her datapad, and headed in the direction of the cantina. As she neared the branch in the walkway she began to pick up on voices raised in a heated argument. She paused, then edged closer, listening in on their conversation. Well hidden from public view under the archway, a human and an amphibious looking alien known as an Aqualish had cornered an elderly man.
"Davik says you missed your payment, so we're here to collect it." one of the men stated, his blaster in hand. It was clearly meant to cow the elderly man.
"But I don't have that much! How can I give you credits I don't have?" the elderly man cried, his face pale in fear. His eyes never left the blaster as the man waved it threateningly.
"That's not my problem." the second man, an alien known as an Aqualish, chimed in, "Now pay up, or we'll be forced to get more…drastic."
Aria's eyes widened in anger, and she started to step forward, but caught herself at the last moment. I can't just let them kill him. But…if we draw too much attention to ourselves, the Sith will find us.
She turned as she heard Carth's footsteps catch up to her, her face troubled, "Carth…"
He merely nodded, "I heard them."
"So what do we do? We can't just let them kill him." She whispered, her voice near pleading.
He reached for his blasters, "We stop them, of course."
Aria took his cue, slipping her datapad into a pouch at her waist as she drew her vibroblades. Lifting her head she stepped plainly into the field of view of the three men and called out, "What's going on, boys?"
As one the two lackeys turned to her, leering, "Oh. A witness? Davik hates witnesses. Sorry, sweetheart, but we're going to have to take you out."
Aria merely shrugged and motioned them toward her with the point of one vibroblade, "Be my guest." She settled into her fighting stance, one blade held high, the other kept low for defense or a quick thrusting offense, "Come now, boys, don't be shy. There's plenty of me to go around."
The goons' faces twisted with anger and they immediately opened fire with their blasters, the elderly man forgotten for the moment. Aria reacted with instincts honed over years of traveling the galaxy, diving under the shots in a roll, just as she had done to the Sith earlier that morning. Coming out of the roll, she sprang lightly to her feet and rushed the human goon, spinning around as she came within range to catch him with both blades in quick succession.
Duck! The impulse was so strong that it felt like someone had physically yelled the command at her, and she reacted instantly, crouching low with her blades crossed over her head. A blaster bolt sizzled just overhead, a bolt that would have killed her instantly had she not moved. Only a second later the Aqualish crashed to the ground, his wide amphibian eyes lifeless.
"Are you alright?" Carth's voice drew her gaze upward. He stood over her, a hand held out to help her to her feet.
She nodded as she clipped her weapons to her belt and reached up to take his hand. He easily pulled her to her feet, glancing her over to ensure that she wasn't wounded.
"Thanks." she muttered grudgingly.
I thought I was a spy, Onasi. What's with the concern all of the sudden? Her inner voice railed, and she had to bite down on her tongue to keep the words from spilling out. She turned to the elderly man, who was standing as if in shock against the wall, his eyes wide.
"Th-thank you both!" he suddenly cried, finally shaking himself back into awareness, "My wife told me not to borrow money from Davik, but I didn't listen, and now I don't have the hundred credits to pay him back."
"A hundred credits?" Aria's brow drew together in thought. Smiling warmly at the elderly man, she reached into her pocket and withdrew a hundred credits, "Here. A hundred credits."
Carth gave her an incredulous look, "You're going to give him that much money?"
She glanced at him, "I'm sure Davik has more goons where those came from, and unless he pays the man back, they won't stop coming."
The elderly man reached out hesitantly, "Are you sure, young lady?"
Aria nodded, "Positive. Take them."
"I…I don't know what to say. You've saved my life. Thank you…thank you!" The man bowed to her as he took the money, "I'll go repay Davik right away!" He disappeared into the crowd, leaving Aria staring after him, a faint smile on her lips.
"That was really generous of you." Carth said after a moment.
She turned to him, her gaze hardening, "Even 'spies' are capable of compassion."
"You didn't have to take it so personally." He replied, his face betraying just how tired he was of arguing.
Aria's eyes flared in anger, "Don't tell me not to take it personally! You accuse me of being in league with those Sith bastards and you tell me not to take it personally!?"
He held out his hands in a placating gesture, "Aria-"
"No!" she cried, her face now livid with anger, "You listen to me, Carth. We have to work together to get off this damned planet, so I suggest you start working with me instead of against me. We're on the same team here!"
He sighed, "I know, I know. Just calm down for a second. I have my reasons for not trusting easily." He stopped suddenly, as if he had intended to say more but had cut himself off at the last moment.
Aria wasn't about to let it lie there, "What reasons are those, exactly?" She asked, her voice dripping with mock-sweetness.
He ran a hand through his hair in agitation, "Blast if you aren't the most frustrating woman to talk to!"
Aria snorted, "I'm frustrating? Look who's talking!"
His face transformed into one of confusion, "Who? Me? What did I do?"
"Oh, that's rich." she retorted, drawing closer to him, "Where have you been?"
Carth's shoulders slumped in defeat, "I-fine, I give up. You want to know why I don't trust? Of all the people who left the Republic to join Revan and Malak, one of them stands out most, Saul Karath."
"Saul? That name sounds familiar." Aria leaned against the railing of the walkway, intent on Carth's speech.
He nodded, "It should. He's admiral of the entire Sith fleet, and half the reason Malak's been doing so well. Back when the Mandalorian War ended he came to me and started talking about how I should be thinking of my survival and that the Republic was on the losing side. We argued for a while, and he left. I didn't see him again. I couldn't have conceived of it then, but now I know he had been trying to recruit me into the Sith. Of course, I realized all of that later, when I woke up with the alarms blaring. Not only had Saul betrayed us, but he'd given the Sith the codes to bypass the scanners around Telos. There wasn't a damn thing anyone could do…the entire planet was razed."
He laughed bitterly, "And the worst thing about it was the fact that I looked up to him as a mentor. He taught me everything I know about being a soldier. I could have stopped him that day he came to me, but I just couldn't believe he of all people would betray the Republic. I could have stopped it… I could have stopped it all."
Aria pushed herself off the railing and stood in front of him, gently laying a hand on his shoulder, "Carth, you can't blame yourself for trusting a friend. None of us would ever believe our friends had betrayed us until we saw it with our own eyes. It's just human nature."
He simply stared down at her, the pain in his eyes so deep that it felt as if she were being swallowed by it as well, "I know. But if I ever catch up to him, he will regret what he's done. He will regret it."
She took a step back, tilting her head, "You're seeking revenge?"
"The Jedi that joined Revan and Malak fell to the Dark Side, but the men from the Republic had no excuse, and they deserve no mercy." his voice had become deadly calm, his eyes hardened with anger and bloodlust.
"I haven't joined the Sith, Carth." She was beginning to fear the side of Carth she had just unleashed more than the Sith that surrounded them at every turn. He had the look of a man with absolutely nothing to lose, and that was by far the most dangerous kind.
"I know…" he replied, his voice still soft, "If it weren't for you, we wouldn't have gotten this far."
"So…truce?" she asked, offering him her hand.
He grinned as he reached out to take her hand, "Truce. Now what do you say we finish looking for a way off this rock?"
Aria quirked an eyebrow at him, "I say let's go."
"Ah…wait…I meant to ask you something about the battle."
She turned back, "What about it?"
"When you dodged that blaster shot…I've never seen anyone move so fast, and you had your back to him. How did you know he was going to shoot?"
She shrugged, "I…just kind of felt it, I guess. I've always been lucky like that. Wouldn't get very far being a scout if I had lousy luck, now would I? I'd have fallen into some black hole years ago."
He laughed, "If you had it would have saved me a lot of trouble."
Aria shook her head, laughing silently as she reached for her datapad again and turned it on, "Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up, flyboy." She glanced at her surroundings, then down at her datapad, "I think we need to go this way." she gestured through the archway they were standing under, "The cantina is just beyond the supplies store."
She put the datapad away and took the lead again, stepping over the cooling bodies of Davik's goons as she made her way toward the cantina. Clearly Davik was well known as a bully on Taris, and she was hoping that whoever found the bodies would be thankful that the man had two less goons with which to threaten the citizenry. Of course, things could just as easily go the other direction and they could end up wanted, but she didn't have time to worry about that possibility at the moment.
As they entered the cantina, Aria paused for a moment at the door to allow her eyes to adjust to the lack of light. As her world slowly came back into focus she made her way through the first room and into the large circular room at the center. She glanced at the gathered patrons, searching for one that looked the most likely to prove useful to her. All of them seemed to be average Tarisian nobles, however, and a few of the more drunken men kept glancing in her direction and then at Carth before returning to their drinks.
"What exactly are you looking for?" Carth whispered, leaning in close so as to keep others from overhearing.
"A mercenary, maybe…someone with information on the black market." She replied, her blue-gray eyes still scanning the patrons.
"There is a Hutt here, you know. I overheard someone talking about him just a minute ago. I think he's through there." Carth gestured off to her left.
"A Hutt? Well then, looks like we found our information." She pushed her way through the crowd to the Hutt's auditorium and made her way up to his dais. The slug-like creature immediately fixed its slitted gaze on her in suspicion.
"Is there something you want, little one?" the Hutt asked in its native language.
Aria nodded, "Yes. I need information on where to obtain a Sith uniform."
Carth looked over at her in surprise, about to ask how she'd understood the creature when he remembered her service records and the pages-long list of alien languages that she could either speak or understand. It was quite an unusual talent, but then again, he was beginning to realize that a lot of things about Aria were unusual.
"A Sith uniform? Well, I may know, or I may not." the creature answered elusively.
Aria produced two hundred credits and held them out, "Perhaps a donation could spur your memory?"
The Hutt laughed, a deep, guttural sound, "Ah, little one, usually I would charge much more for such information, but I like you." He motioned a Rodian forward with a stubby arm, and Aria handed the credits over him, "Yes, I do know about Sith uniforms. My sources say there is an Aqualish who has stolen quite a few of these uniforms for the Hidden Beks, a swoop gang in the Lower City. He currently lives in the apartments on the south side of town. Does that help you, little one?"
Aria bowed deeply, "Yes. Thank you very much."
The Hutt laughed again as Aria turned to leave, "Good luck on your search, little one."
"I take it you have your information now?" Carth asked as they made their way back to the entrance of the cantina.
Aria smiled sweetly, "But of course." She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "The Hutt says that there is an Aqualish who steals the uniforms for one of the swoop gangs. He lives in the apartments on the south side, so that's our next stop."
"For the Upper City, this place sure does seem run-down." Aria commented as the door to the south side apartments slid open, "You'd think all these nobles would be able to spare the cash to at least keep the place cleaned up." She stepped out into the circular hall, glancing around as she decided between going left or right.
"I'm sure they don't really give a damn. As long as they sit in luxury, they couldn't care less about what happens to the rest of the planet." Carth fell into step at her side, running his gaze over the walls of the building.
"Makes you sick, doesn't it? That people could be that self-centered…"
"Yeah." Carth stopped suddenly, grabbing Aria's arm, "Wait. There's Sith up ahead. I see the guard standing outside that apartment."
Aria felt icy dread work it's way into her stomach as she contemplated the possibilities, "They're looking for us, aren't they?"
Carth was silent for a long moment as he studied the situation, "No." he said at last, "They're here for something else. That's just a guard, something else must be going on inside."
He nodded, "That'd be my guess."
Aria's eyes narrowed in resolve, "We can't let them take him prisoner. Come on." She continued down the hall, her hands resting on the hilts of her vibroblades. As she has suspected, the Sith called out to her as she drew closer.
"Halt, civilian. This is Sith business, you'd better just turn around and go back the way you came."
Aria merely fixed him with her intense gaze, "What exactly is going on in there?"
The guard shifted his stance, lifting his blaster slightly, "It's got nothing to do with you, woman."
Aria shrugged, "I don't know, somehow you tormenting the innocent seems to be my business. So I'll ask you boys nicely to leave him alone."
The guard laughed, the sound coming out harsh and metallic through his voice synthesizer, "Hey, boss, there's some bitch at out here who thinks she can stand up to us."
Two more Sith appeared at the door, both of them staring directly at Aria.
"Didn't your mother teach you not to speak to women that way?" Carth asked, taking his stand at Aria's side.
The guard laughed, "And what are you supposed to be? The gallant soldier?"
"Enough! Just kill them already! We have real business to attend to." the commander shouted, pulling his blaster rifle from his back.
In a fluid motion Carth drew his blaster and fired, catching the guard full in the chest. He hadn't even hit the ground before Carth turned and fired on the second. Aria drew her blades and rushed at the third just as he raised his blaster rifle to fire at Carth. She slammed full on into the guard, knocking him to the side just enough to deflect the bolt safely to one side. Before the Sith could regain his footing she thrust one blade at him, driving it into the unprotected area under the Sith's arm and into his chest. With a look of disgust she pulled her blade free and wiped it clean on a discarded piece of paper that lay in the hall.
"These Sith have absolutely zero class." she quipped as she moved past Carth into the apartment itself, "I could have thought up a better insult than that at the age of ten."
"…Where have the Sith gone?" an alien voice called from one corner of the room. Aria turned toward the source of the voice, the Aqualish she had been searching for. He was clearly afraid for his life, and Aria smiled at him to diffuse his fear.
"Dead." she replied.
The alien relaxed visibly, "Thank you, human. They surely would have killed me had you not been here. Is there anything I can do to repay you?"
Aria nodded, "We heard you had Sith uniforms. Do you have one we could buy? We need to get to the Lower City."
"I'm sorry, human. I gave all of the uniforms I stole to the Beks. They're planning a resistance against the Sith and I have been helping them little by little. But if you're going to the Lower City, I would suggest you seek them out. I know now you are no friend of the Sith, and I'm sure Gadon could help you in whatever you need. I'm sorry to leave so suddenly, but I fear if I stay here too long, the Sith will find me again. Thank you again, human."
The Aqualish ran for the door and was quickly gone.
"So now what?" Carth asked, "We're at a dead end again. At this rate, the Sith are going to find Bastila before we do."
Aria's nose wrinkled in distaste at the idea forming in her mind, but she could see no way around it. "I guess we steal the uniforms from our friends here. I don't find the prospect very attractive, myself, but we don't have a lot of choice. We can put the uniforms into that box there so we can get them back to our apartment without anyone noticing." She glanced at her chronometer, "It's getting late, anyway. I think we should just take the uniforms and head back until tomorrow."
Carth sighed, a wry smile playing across his lips, "Sounds like fun. Let's get to it, then."