The sun hung low on the horizon. A warm breeze tugged softly at the cloth coverings of the stalls. In the gentle heat of the early evening, the market bustled with activity. The aroma of fruit and perfumes mingled with the smell of spices and cooking food. Arm round Alissha Downhigher, Wedge Antilles wandered through the market, savouring the sights and sounds and wondering if he should spend the extra ten credits on the pale jade shirt with the gold trim… Or should he just get the dark green one? Of course, if they'd had a dark green one with gold trim that would have solved the problem….
Alissha slapped him lightly across the back of the head, "Hello? Is anyone at home in there?"
"What?" he grinned sheepishly. "Sorry. You were saying…"
"I asked," she told him, pointing to a stall selling cakes and cookies that were covered in brightly coloured fondant icing or dusted with fine grain sugar, "if you thought we should pick up some of those iced cookies for the others?"
Wedge followed her gaze, mouth watering as the baker pulled another tray of cakes out of the oven. "Nah," he told her wickedly, "That would have been the first stall Hobbie found and he didn't bring any back to us."
"Awe," she admonished, "don't be mean! He would have…."
She trailed off as a sparkle of rainbow-coloured light from a stall further along drew her attention. Letting Wedge go she ordered, "You get the cakes. I want to have a look at these."
Before he could protest she darted over to a stall where crystal jewellery flashed in the evening sun. She ran her gaze across the contents then picked up a tiny pendant of purple/red crystal bound in silver. Slowly, as she held it in the palm of her hand, the crystal changed colour to a deep crimson.
The woman on the other side of the stall smiled at her knowingly, nodding and telling her, ^Saey san'kol!! Binba ger!! ^
The deep tones of a bell rang out across the square announcing that it was eight hours after mid-day. Making his way across to Alissha, Wedge moved the box of cookies onto his other hand and glanced at his timepiece.
They weren't here to enjoy themselves - unfortunately. Much as he would have liked some rest and recuperation, and as much as they all needed it, they were here to meet a Rebel Alliance agent. Six Incom T-65s were hidden somewhere near the city, ready and waiting to be handed over to them and flown out, which was why he and the others were here. The agent had given them the name and location of a hotel and the room number where they would be contacted, but had been unable to give an exact rendezvous time – just a date plus or minus three days.
The Rebel pilots had arrived in separate groups, at different times and from different places. However, six supposed tourists at the same hotel staying in their rooms all day, possibly for the full seven days was bound to draw attention: if only from the hotel staff. He, Alissha, Luke and Lainey had waited in the hotel room the previous day - D minus three - while Brin and Hobbie had wandered the city. Today, he and Alissha had savoured the sites.
They all had com links but Luke had decided everyone should get back to the hotel for sunset – just in case. To say that Gehndaarian nightlife could get lively would be an understatement and the last thing they needed was to get picked up by the local law enforcement officers. Only the bravest or stupidest of tourists dared an evening out in the Gehndaarian capitol.
Wedge reached Alissha, touching her arm with a sigh, "We'd better think about heading back."
Reluctantly Alissha put the pendant back down on the table. Then she changed her mind, digging into her pocket for credits. The young woman behind the stall smiled as she took the proffered money, ^Cheydaa san'kol maya ha ney??^
Alissha thought for a moment about whether or not to wear it then shook her head, ^Pa'assh.. Monha sey'dal tue dalla..^
Nodding, the woman picked up the pendant, wrapping it in tissue and securing it in a sand coloured box before handing it over. Her eyes flickered across to Wedge then back to the female pilot and as Alissha took the box she winked, her smile growing broader, ^Peek'ha na saey san'kol brielk binba hal'ladah gren..^
Wedge didn't understand the conversation but he watched the slow grin that spread itself across Alissha's face, saw the conspiratorial nod and, if he hadn't know otherwise, would have sworn that Alissha blushed slightly.
Alissha was loud, forthright, abrupt at times and very much straight to the point, with the dirtiest sense of humour of any of the Flight. She said what she thought and didn't beat about the bush. And in all the time that he had known her, he had never seen her blush once.
The pink tinge to her cheeks had already disappeared as she laughed and slipped her arm around his waist. ^Monha grel tan binba!!^ Alissha smirked. ^San'kol tue passan takey'ha..^
^Aagh… Teu'dah …^ the other woman acknowledged with a chuckle, glancing at Wedge. ^Geyy funshan!!^
Wedge looked from the vendor to Alissha, scowling in good humour. The woman laughed at his expression, turning away to deal with another customer.
Giggling, Alissha drew Wedge away from the stall, heading towards the south market gate. Wedge waited until they were three or four stalls away from the jeweller's then asked, "And what was that all about?"
"Oh, nothing…" Alissha avoided in her little girl voice.
Wedge tightened his arm round her waist, pulling her towards him, putting as much threat as he could into his voice, demanding, "Ali?"
She wriggled out of his grip, grinning, "Oh, she was just commenting that she didn't think I had any need to buy a fertility symbol when I had such a strapping specimen of manhood under my charms!"
She turned, tilting her head coquettishly and looking at him through fluttering eyelashes, dropping back into the little girl voice, "So I told her that I wanted many children and that I would only use it if your strength started failing you!"
He tried to give her a flat, level look and failed miserably in the face of the impish smile and the vastly exaggerated fluttering of eyelashes. Laughing, he shook his head, "Downhigher, you are incorrigible!"
She slipped her arm back round his waist, "Well, we are supposed to be husband and wife. And let's face it," she continued as they began walking again, "life would be dull and boring without me around to liven things up."
"And is that what you told the poor little rookie you wore out just before we left?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow at her.
She thumped him on the chest, "Poor little rookie nothing! He had a fabulous time! And the boy has to learn that if you're going to make comments like that you'd better be prepared to stand your ground!"
"I wouldn't have thought he had the strength to stand after you were finished with him!"
"Oh, he had the strength left…" she began, voice dripping with sweetness and innocence, "he just couldn't get out of the ropes!"
Wedge collapsed into fits of helpless laughter. Shaking her head, Alissha rescued the box of cookies before they landed on the ground. Pulling one out, she savoured a delicate bite before trying to guide a still-laughing Wedge towards the gate, shrugging her shoulders in mock embarrassment at the passers-by who smiled indulgently at a young couple obviously enjoying themselves.
At a nearby stall a tall, slender, dark-haired man glanced across towards the laughter then did a slow double-take, looking away before the couple could see his interest. Frowning slightly, lost in thought, he turned back to the trader, his fingers running across the intricate carvings of the wooden flute in his hands.
^Yents treljnah gri'iv seygret dah'ha shen avka?^ the trader asked, breaking into his thoughts.
He shook his head, handing the flute across, "No need. I'll take this one."
Laughter finally dying into a sigh, Wedge put his arm round Alissha's waist. He shook his head then pulled her towards him, making a successful grab for the box of baked goods. Letting her go he opened the box, choosing a cookie covered in blue icing. Biting into the tart, spicy tang of cippera seeds mingling with the sweet, engranberrie flavouring of the fondant, he groaned softly in delight.
Alissha grinned, reaching for the box again, "Good, aren't they?"
"Mmm," Wedge agreed through a mouthful of crumbs. "Luke doesn't know what he's missing!"
Luke was the only one of the group who had been ordered to remain in the hotel room. Operations had been against the idea of Skywalker even going on the mission so soon after the destruction of the Death Star at Yavin, especially since the Imperial Navy had decided to make him, above all the others who had survived, their primary target for retribution. There had been no one else available at such short notice, though, and Luke had been grousing about being stuck inside since he'd arrived. His companions had been taking every possible opportunity to throw it in his face, though, which wasn't helping…
They turned into the main thoroughfare, heading back towards the hotel. Ahead of them the sun slipped down behind the cityscape and streetlights flickered into existence. Shopkeepers were closing up, pulling their wares in from the street displays and closing the coloured awnings that both shaded their customers from the sun and kept them dry in the rain.
A young man walked out of a boot shop and Alissha's heart lurched. Tall, slender, with shoulder-length, dark hair, she had mistaken him for her brother for a moment… before the memories had slammed at her.
It couldn't be Shedran. Her brother Shedran, was dead. As was her fiancé… As was everyone else who had been on Alderaan...
Guilt, that she should have, however briefly, forgotten her grief, forgotten why she and the others were here, pricked at her conscience. The cake in her hand was suddenly, sickeningly sweet, the pendant an unnecessary extravagance. The darkening streets had changed, sinister and hostile now, the frivolity gone.
This time last year she had been at university on Calaador, studying to become a teacher, full of plans for the future, naive in a universe that had never done her any wrong. And then Alderaan had gone. She had stood in the University Square, watching the telecasts in numb terror as the newsreader revelled in the horror of it all. Around her people whispered in disbelief. Behind her someone had collapsed, screaming in grief.
Alissha took a deep, quavering breath, trying to stop the tears and failed. Swearing, she dashed them away as they spilled over and down onto her cheek. Wedge glanced at her then stopped, turning her towards him and giving her time to compose herself before asking, "You okay?"
Nodding, not trusting her voice, she refused to look at him.
"You want to talk about it?" he asked, softly.
She shook her head, saying nothing. He considered his options for a moment then decided to plunge in at the deep end. "You're going to have to talk to someone at some point," he tried. She remained stubbornly silent and he continued, "You can't get through this on your own. No-one can."
She looked at him, the defiance and determination in her eyes surprising him in its intensity. "You have! What makes you think I can't?"
He shook his head slowly, allowing all the pain, sorrow and guilt to show on his face, telling her quietly, "I haven't..."
He closed his eyes, "There's not a day goes by that I don't think about my family. They've given me a purpose, given me a reason to fight on, to work my way through everything else. All I have to do is think of what my brother and the others on the Tantive must have had to endure… and everything falls into perspective."
He paused for a moment then admitted, "But if it wasn't for that, I'd be a mess."
Alissha was looking at him, eyes bright with tears, but he could see the underlying defiance and decided not to press the point. Instead he shrugged his shoulders, "All I'm trying to say is that I'm here if you ever need to talk."
A young girl with azure skin and long white hair woven into a thick braid down her back, darted across the street, stopping beside them. She reached up, tugging on Alissha's sleeve.
Startled both pilots looked down at her. The girl screwed up her face giving Wedge a hard, disgusted look before turning her attention back to Alissha, "Missy, he give you trouble?"
Alissha looked at her, "What?"
"You cry!" the child accused, biting her lip and glaring at Wedge, "He give you trouble? I have brothers. They get rid of him!"
Alissha smiled at her incredulously then shook her head, "No… Thank you, but no. As tempting as the offer is, I married him for better and for worse."
The little girl crossed her arms, giving Wedge a clinical once over, "He your husband?"
"Then perhaps you sell him? He make good price! He strong!" She looked back at Alissha, "He good in bed? I buy him maybe!"
Open mouthed, Wedge looked at the child then at Alissha who was trying desperately hard not to laugh. She dropped to one knee, winking at the little girl and dropping her voice to a conspiratorial murmur, "I have him trained the way I want him. He only thinks he's in charge! Truth be told it would be too much trouble to break in another one."
The child considered her for a moment, "Okay, Missy. But you ever want to sell, I here! Got it?"
"Absolutely," Alissha assured her, "You'll be my first stop!"
The child grinned, "Okay. Bye!"
She darted away, disappearing into a doorway. Alissha climbed to her feet, slowly shaking her head.
"So I only think I'm in charge, do I?" Wedge accused, eyes flashing devilment.
Alissha giggled, the despondency pushed away for the moment, putting her arm through his, "Absolutely not, Assistant Boss. Of course you're in charge, Assistant Boss. How would Luke cope without you, Assistant Boss?"
Leaning nonchalantly against a doorway, Pashra Navreen watched as the couple turned, heading down the street towards the hotels. The little girl with the azure skin sidled up to him. He glanced down at her and by the time he looked back, Wedge and Alissha had been lost in the crowd. The child looked up at him, biting her lip in consternation when he said nothing to her. "I did as you ask, Mister," she informed him finally.
Slowly, he dropped his gaze back to her, "Where did you put it?"
"On her sleeve. She not notice. Where my money?"
Pashra smiled, dropping his hand lightly onto the girl's head, "Patience, little one."
"Patience nothing!" she countered petulantly, pulling away, "Where my money?"
He began to laugh at her stubbornness then, on impulse, decided to give the child a choice of payment. "Well," he began, "there you have a decision to make."
He held out some coins, asking, "Do you want the credits?" Then he pulled the carved flute from his pocket, continuing, "Or would you like this instead?"
She caught her breath. Eyes wide she looked from the flute to the money and back again. Then she reached out, delicately taking the flute from him, "Is beautiful…."
"Just as beautiful as you, little one."
She ran her fingers across the carvings, brushing them against the holes as she put the instrument to her lips, blowing softly across the mouthpiece and running a scale of crystal notes into the air. Then she was gone, darting away out of the doorway and disappearing up another side street. He shook his head, somehow knowing that she would choose the instrument over the money.
He dropped the coins back into his pocket and reached for the tracking unit in his inside pocket. He thumbed it on, sending out a signal to the tiny transceiver the child had stuck into the cloth of the woman's jacket. The light blinked green, confirming activation. The transceiver would reply only when interrogated, negating any need for a cloaking device. All he had to do now was follow it. And once he had located them he could go back to the ship and find out why he recognised the dark-haired man.
Yolan Nabrood padded across the room with a lithe, easy grace that only hinted of his strength and speed. He had never been everyone's idea of handsome and the scar that now ran down his left cheek from ear to mouth only added to the impression that this was not a man you would want as an enemy. Taciturn and dangerous he might be, but he had a laugh that melted women's hearts and Jenniiya had seen those eyes spark mischief as well as death.
Now, however, his face was blank, his eyes unreadable. Jenniiya knew her second in command well enough to read his mood in the way he carried himself. And now he was more than a little displeased with something.
"We've hidden the T-65s in the forest near the old mines," he told her as he dropped into the chair across the desk from her. "They won't be found."
She gave him a flat look, "But?"
"There are only five!"
Jenniiya kept the displeasure from showing on her face, standing up and turning to look out of the window across the gardens, "When does the last one arrive?"
He made a small sound of disgust, "It doesn't. They say they could only get five."
She said nothing for a moment, then asked, "Did they return the money?"
"They're playing games with us, Manwah!" he accused in distaste. His use of Manwah, the term of respect only ever given to the Director of the Diazezcartel, reconfirmed his anger at the whole affair.
Jenniiya laughed, lightly and coldly, "You would have thought that the Corxians would have known better after their little run-in with the Hutts... I take it that we haven't allowed them to leave."
"The Port Authorities are, most unfortunately, going through their manifest item by item as we speak." He pushed himself out of the chair, "Where do you want them?"
"Oh, let's be civilised about it. My apartments for..." she waved her hand in the air, "a late supper, I think."
He grinned, "Understood. I'll see to it personally."
"Be careful with them, Yolan," she cautioned, "The new Imperial Governor arrived today."
Nabrood swore, colourfully, exactly the reaction she had expected. The Governor was supposed to have arrived the previous month but the date had been put back, then back again. They had hoped to have the Rebel fighters in and out before he finally arrived. "So he finally got here." He clenched his fists, "Their grip grows uncomfortably tight!"
"Mmm," Jenniiya agreed, sitting back down at her desk, "but we'll find out soon enough how pliable he is. Until then we must be… inventive. Oh, I invited him for dinner tomorrow evening. He's already accepted."
Nabrood's eyes narrowed, "Is my presence required?"
"Most definitely! Lyn also. I'm planning a relaxed business meeting to find out exactly how much he knows about our operation. I think both my personal assistant and my bodyguard should be there."
The smile that touched the corners of his lips was cold. He enjoyed portraying the part of the silent bodyguard to Lyn's tongue-tied, nervous assistant when Jenniiya was playing her little games - especially if it was with a jumped-up, self-important autocrat, "I look forward to it."
She pulled a face, "I don't. But needs must." She thought for a moment, switching topics, "I think we should leave the Alliance pilots where they are, at least for this evening. We should have the T-65 problem resolve tonight. We can start bringing them in tomorrow. They're playing it safe enough, so I doubt anyone has seen anything amiss. And the Imperials have been too busy fawning over their new Governor."
He nodded, "Understood. Who's watching them?"
"Gab and her street mob. Lyn's dealing with them. They're checking in with her now."
"Fine." He turned, walking towards the door, "I'll take Zren and Gage with me… just in case they are crass enough to turn down your kind invitation." He closed the door behind him, leaving her alone.
Jenniiya stood up, turning back to the window, watching the last rays of light above the rooftops fade towards mauve and the stars begin to appear. This was going to be tricky: six Rebel Alliance pilots, five fighters and a new Imperial Governor. Stir lightly and bake in the hottest week yet of the Gehndaarian summer.
She sighed, resting her head against the cool glass of the window. The Diazez Cartel does not concern itself with politics. How many times had her father told her that? Leave the politics to the Senate.
She knew that she had been taking a chance with the fighters. But in the five years since her father had died and she had inherited the leadership of the Cartel, Alderaan had been "destroyed", the Emperor had dissolved the Senate and she had watched with growing concern as the Empire tightened its grip and shortened its leashes. The Rebel Alliance had, at first, been merely a nuisance. Then it had grown into something to make money out of. And now, here she was, in a negative profit situation because of X-wings for that same Rebel Alliance - and that was before the Corxians had tried to swindle her out of a fighter.
They would pay for that mistake - especially if it caused questions to be asked by the other clans who composed the cartel.
Their concerns mirroring her own, Nabrood and Lyn had both agreed with what she was doing, but others, particularly those of her father's generation, would not. She would have a hard time persuading them otherwise. In the past two hundred years no one had tried to "retire" the Cartel's Director… but it was still a possibility. More so in today's climate when the continuing rise of Imperial power was giving people ideas of their own importance…
And now she had the added problem of a redundant Rebel pilot. Even if the Corxian brothers had the sixth fighter, and she doubted that, it was highly unlikely that they could deliver it in such a tight time-scale.
As Jenniiya saw it, she had four choices – she could provide transportation for the pilot back to the Alliance; let them make their own way back; keep them here; or hand them over to the Empire.
Despite her sympathies towards the Rebel Alliance she would do nothing to endanger the multi-faceted unit of the Cartel - or her people. If the situation called for the pilots being handed over she would, however reluctantly. Ensuring that the Corxian Gribbs brothers understood her displeasure over the present matter had nothing to do with the Alliance, it was simply a matter of business etiquette.
Turning away from the window she sat back down in the chair. Her final decision would depend on the events of the next few days. So, she resolved, there was no point in worrying about it until after her little audience this evening. Besides, all she had done was purchase six fighters from associates. That could easily be explained away to any who asked – as could the armament shipments. She was, after all, a businesswoman trying to turn a profit.
She pushed herself to her feet, realising that it was her own conscience causing the problem, nothing else.
And the Corxians could surprise her yet.
She walked towards a side door, heading for her apartments. It had been a long, tiring day. She needed a bath and a change of clothes before her guests arrived.
Haniff-Brin Aksha opened the box, stared for a moment then sighed in contentment, "Ali, darling, will you marry me?"
Alissha grinned, dropping into a chair and propping her feet up on the bed, "Nothing to do with me, Aksha, my old buddy. Wedge bought them."
Brin paused mid-chew, considering the possibilities. "What are the regulations on marrying your superior officer?"
Wedge, face deadly serious, shook his head, "Couldn't do it Brin, sorry. You'd have to move to another section. And I couldn't do that to anyone else."
"Awe, Wedge," Alissha groaned, "we nearly got rid of him there! Why'd you have to spoil it!"
"Because I'm never going to let him forget that I risked life and limb to buy him cakes." He threw his jacket onto the bed as Brin gave him a sour look. Alissha chuckled, swinging her legs to the floor and reaching for the box of goodies. "Anything interesting going on?" Wedge asked.
Brin mumbled incoherence through a mouthful of crumbs. Alissha swatted him across the back of the head, "Didn't your mother teach you any manners?"
Hobbie appeared from the shower room to Alissha's low, appreciative whistle, dressed only in a towel, moisture shining against his dark skin, his hair tousled. "Roughly translated," he told them, "that means that the Imperial Governor arrived today."
"Amid much pageantry," Brin mumbled. Then, as Wedge swore, he continued, "Funnily enough that was almost exactly my reaction…"
"Although he wasn't just as concise as you."
"Hasn't had the training," Alissha quipped. "Takes training to swear as concisely as Wedge Antilles."
"And poise," Hobbie put in, "Don't forget the poise!"
Brin pouted slightly as they continued the list, glaring at the two of them from beneath his eyebrows. "I hate you both!"
Wedge was only half listening to the banter, mind running through the ramifications of the Governor's arrival. Major Derlin had briefed Luke and him about this possibility. They'd decided not to inform the other pilots. If the Governor had arrived when he was due, they would have worried the others unnecessarily. And this could be both good and bad news. On the one hand the Imperial toadies would be falling over each other trying to ingratiate themselves with the new Governor… on the other hand security would be tighter.
"Have Luke and Lainey been along?"
"Yup. They left about ten minutes before you arrived," Brin confirmed, "They were talking about room service… Well," he clarified as Alissha almost choked on her cookie, "the Boss was..."
"Room service? Derlin will kill them!"
"Under the circumstances…" Wedge said slowly, "Luke may have a point. At least until we find out how the Governor's arrival is going to change things. Derlin won't be the only one wanting to kill us if we end up appearing on the early morning newscasts with other citizens of the Gehndaari capital welcoming their new lord and master."
"Quick thinking, oh vice-lord and master," Hobbie agreed.
"Awe," Alissha groaned, "And I was so looking forward to waving a big hello to the Major!" She studied Hobbie for a moment, "Hey! I hope that's not my towel you're wearing!"
He grinned, "Why? Do you want it back?"
"Better watch your mouth," Brin warned, "Look what happened to the last bloke who tried to take her on!"
Hobbie's smile faded to a look of mock horror, "Poor child..."
"Poor child, nothing...." Alissha defended, "He was..."
"A rookie!" Brin interrupted.
"A rookie who should have watched his mouth!" Wedge commented, quietly. They all turned to look at him and he grinned, admitting, "She gave him fair warning. He pushed the point!"
"Exactly!" Alissha put in, standing up and slowly moving towards Hobbie, "Just like I'm giving you fair warning, Hobbie Klivian!" He held his ground and she batted her eyelids, running her finger lightly down his chest towards the edge of the towel, "Do you want to push the point?"
He did nothing for a moment, simply looked at her. Then he called her bluff, catching the end of the towel and pulling it off. Lobbing it at her he asked, "Can I use your towel Wedge?"
"You are disgusting!" Alissha yelped in mock horror, throwing the towel into his face.
He caught it and took a step towards her. "Oh... So now you're happy for me to use it?" he asked, voice low and menacing.
Brin looked across at Wedge, holding out a hand, "Ten credits on Ali!"
Wedge grinned at him and shook his hand, "Done!"
Alissha held her ground, "You've already soiled it! You may as well just carry on!"
"What, even though I'm disgusting?" Hobbie demanded.
The door chime rang. Hobbie turned, looking at Wedge who motioned for both he and Brin to go back to their own room through the adjoining door. He stood up, walking across the floor as they both slipped out of the room, closing the adjoining door behind them. Alissha dropped onto the bed, kicking off her shoes and picking up the newspad Brin had been reading when they arrived. Wedge hit the door button and it slid back.
Luke grinned at him, "Knew from the noise in here that you two had to be back! Are we getting room service or ordering in, because I'm starved?"
Wedge stood back, letting Luke and Lainey into the room, "We were discussing exactly that dilemma before Hobbie's towel changed the topic of conversation..."
Luke started to ask what he was talking about, then did a double take as he saw the open cookie box lying on Wedge's bed. "Wow!" he breathed, pushing past Wedge and making a dive for the box.
"Hobbie's towel?" Lainey asked as Luke picked out a cookie and bit into the pastry.
On cue the connecting door opened and both Hobbie and Brin appeared. Lainey gave a low, appreciative whistle and made a beeline for the blond pilot who was still clad only in a towel, "Hel-lo, hon-ney!"
Hobbie yelped and retreated back into his room - followed by Lainey.
"Will you two cut that out!" Luke ordered through a mouthful of pastry as the door slid closed. It opened again almost immediately and Lainey pulled a face, dropping into an easy chair and reaching for the cookie box.
At the end of the corridor, the lift chimed softly, the door sliding open. Pashra Navreen checked that the corridor was empty then started walking along it, flipping the little switch on the tracker. The light blinked green for a moment and data appeared on the screen. He walked along to one of the doors and hit the switch again, smiling as the numbers changed. So the dark-haired man and his wife were here.
He pushed the tracker back into his pocket and walked to the far end of the corridor, scrutinising everything and checking the stairwells he passed. Then he turned, heading back towards the lift. Now to find out who the man was.