They were just finishing up when Nyder arrived, looking none the worse for wear. All three of them were now dressed in simple, convenient local fashion, and nobody gave him a second glance as he first went up to the counter to place an order and then came over to them. “No trouble,” he said. “So what’s the plan?”
Padmé had spent most of the morning considering this. “I think I should go in first,” she said. “Not for very long or very far, but you say the tunnel comes out near where Tuli Tulson lives.” Tuli Tulson, from what Clistara and Nyder had both observed, seemed to be in Darth Maul’s inner circle in Ruuger’s City. “I put on your robes, Clistara, and avoid coming near anyone using the Force-and I should be able to sense them before they sense me-and I can go completely unnoticed for at least a little while.”
“You want the two of us to wait in the Uproom?” asked Nyder. The Uproom was what they called a room Tulson apparently owned in the building that stood over the Alopi entrance to the secret passage, and Clistara had access.
“If there’s no one else in there. I’ll be able to tell if anyone using the Force has been in there recently as well; in that case you’ll have to wait somewhere else too.”
But when they got to the Uproom, Padmé had the general feeling no one had been there at all for at least a week and probably longer. When she said that, Clistara said, “That’s a little surprising. They always talked as if there was always someone doing secret things in here.”
“These things do tend to get exaggerated,” said Padmé, although privately, she also thought that when that might still be true, she and Master Windu both needed to prepare themselves to deal with it.
Although she didn’t know nearly as much about her Master’s current status as she would’ve liked. She knew nothing grave had happened to him; she would’ve felt it immediately if anything had. He’d even sent her a couple of messages, but they had been short and vague, except for the one after she’d told him the plan, where he’d told her she could do it, but to be very careful.
“Lock yourselves in,” she said to them as she took her leave. “Heed the comm on the wall and watch for my number; I’ll buzz it and then immediately disconnect when I return, so you’ll know to let me in.”
Even clad in Clistara’s normal clothes and robes, pinned in strategic places to deal with their being a little big for her, she managed to slip through the complicated tube entrance to the tunnel without too much trouble. The tunnel itself was broad and well lit; multiple groups could pass through it easily. The floor was a little wet, though, and since it turned out to be a couple of hours walk, by the end of it Padmé’s boots were feeling it. Thankfully at its Ruuger’s City end the tunnel didn’t have any slippery tubing, just a staircase and trapdoor to a basement.
The house the basement belonged to had recently been deserted. Nyder thought the family living there had decided to flee all the way to Chandrila. They could try to find out if they'd been on the Zarlot 3, but they probably wouldn't be able to confirm anything. Another family might eventually move in, but for now Padmé could tell there was no one living there. She looked in each of the rooms upstairs, just in case anything interesting popped up, but there was nothing in them but bare furniture.
The spread of the population throughout the city was uneven; Padmé could sense them clustered heavily in the center, and then smaller groups all crowded together in various other neighborhoods. This was one of the emptier ones. She couldn’t get the kind of reading on the recent local foot traffic Master Windu could have, but she could tell one of the houses, which she was pretty sure was Tulson’s, had seen a lot of people coming and going, and the others very little.
She could sense the Dark Side, too. It was strong enough a presence in what she was certain was his house that the cloud of it gathered all around. She thought she might feel something like it everywhere in the city. Of course, at this point it would’ve been bigger news if that hadn’t been true.
It had been seven years since Padmé had last been in the presence of the Dark Side like this, the last time she and Master Windu had faced Darth Maul, on Cirrios. She’d forgotten how hard it could be to breathe, how there were moments she had to actively think to make herself move. She was grateful now she’d done extensive meditation the previous night, ignoring Nyder and Clistara’s confusion. Now she could grasp onto the center of herself she had developed then, hold on to it, as she left the safety of the deserted house at a time she could tell there’d be no one on the streets she was about to walk on.
At the moment Tulson’s house had one person in it, and Padmé believed that person to be asleep. According to Nyder and Clistara, Tulson had been married once, but his wife had died childless, and since then he had always lived alone. She couldn’t be sure it was him, but it seemed likely enough.
Whoever the person was, he seemed to be borderline Force sensitive. His new Master might have taught him to make use of that, but that he hadn’t woken yet indicated he couldn’t do so in his sleep. Standing on the gravel path that led to his door, Padmé took off her still squishing boots, concealed them as best she could amid a pile of possibly decorative rocks, and started considering the windows. She wanted to break in without using the Force if she could. Even if he hadn’t sensed her being here, she didn’t want to push her luck.
One of the windows in the back was a little loose. Padmé didn’t want to use the Force to actually dislodge it, but she could use it to tell where it was weakest, where pressure would help loosen it further, even what moment her hands had to push and then get under it to keep it from clattering noisily to the floor. There was a moment of terror that it would slip from her grasp, but then it was done, and she was climbing silently inside.
It had taken too much time to do, though, and even her presence didn’t wake probably-Tulson up, he might at any time wake up on his own. Padmé had at least had time to observe where the Dark Side was strongest, and she also knew men like this usually didn’t keep evidence of their secrets on the first floor, where their guests were most likely to stumble on them. The house had no basement, so she headed up to its attic.
She reached the top of the stairs and found herself standing in what she’d always thought the lair of a Sith might look like. There wasn’t much light available through the two tiny windows, but there was enough for her to see weapons, a shelf of holocrons, and mysterious devices that Padmé just knew did horrible things. Everything, including the stone floor and slanted walls, was saturated with the Dark Side. Also, an object covered in cloth.
Taking the cloth off, she found under it what looked like a old communications router, one that despite its age was capable of intercepting transmissions sent from a very great distance, and then sending them on to be received an equally long way away.
It also would contain records of all those transmissions, at least for a hacker of any skill, even Anakin with his limited knowledge. Practically clumsy of he who had stashed it here. Unless he had many of them, and thought this a place the Jedi were least likely to look for one.
It was also on the heavy side, but Padmé had carried heavier. It was at least easy to disconnect, and she had robes to hide it under. There were some boxes in the corner; she took one about the right size and covered it with the cloth. She considered the holocrons, but decided it wasn’t worth it. If she left everything else undisturbed, she might get a little leeway before he bothered to confirm it was still the router under its draping.
Probably-Tulson was just starting to stir as Padmé let herself out, trying to replace the window as best she could without using the Force. She managed to get it into position where it might go unnoticed so long as no one tried to touch it. She didn’t even linger to put her boots on after retrieving them, just headed back for the tunnel as fast as she could. Even so, she knew, there was no way he’d noticed nothing. That didn’t mean he’d been able to quite perceive what the Force would’ve made clear to him had he been more fully awake. It was unfortunate, though, since it made him more likely to check for the router as well as everything else.
Even if he called the Sith, she told herself, it would probably take him a few days to get to the planet. That didn't give them much time, but at least they didn't have to flee Alopi immediately.
Her comm was able to get a signal on the stairs leading into the tunnel. Thankfully when Master Windu answered, he was somewhere he could easily have a conversation, although he didn’t tell her any more than that. When she told him what she’d found, he said only, “We need to get the router secured. I think it better we don’t even tell your two friends about it. Are you able to make yourself not look like an Epostulate while remaining decent?” When Padmé told him she was, he said, “Then so do, and find a storage locker you can rent. Tell the people you’re renting it from that you want to grant access to Obdon Ocalla.”
Of course she agreed, but as Padmé took the long walk back, levitating the router in front of her when her arm really started to ache from carrying it, she felt sorry to be keeping everything from her two allies like this. Nyder especially, even if she could kind of understand it when it came to Clistara.
Unfortunately, he was instead sharing a locked clothes closet with a man he had known two days and could only trust from situation to situation, with five mercenaries just outside the door, who might or might not have known they were there, but definitely were not going away. Mace was holding out hope that if they didn’t know they might get complacent and all sleep at once, but it was more likely they’d set a watch. If they didn’t just stay up all night. At the moment, they were engaged in what was clearly some sort of gambling game that had gone on energetically for well over an hour, and from what Mace could tell, it was likely to continue for some time yet.
He and his companion couldn’t talk to each other or make any sounds, of course. But already he’d seen how good Xador, as he called himself (he’d given only the one name; Mace wasn’t even sure if it was supposed to be a personal or family name), was at making everyone around him aware of how he felt. Mace couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen such a pronounced pout, or such a surly pair of clenched fists.
He’d been sensing deceit from him since the moment he’d picked up him outside a criminal hideout he’d tracked the second assassin sent after him to. But every question he’d asked him, the man had answered readily and truthfully, unless he could cloak his feelings about specific statements better than anyone Mace had met in the past ten years. Well, except possibly some of the Senators.
Though at the moment, Mace was less concerned about whether he was about to betray him than whether he was about to lose his patience and try to burst through the door, which would certainly result in him dead. Very possibly Mace himself too.
Outside, one of the mercenaries exclaimed, “Boffos! You are not bailing on us now like an Eppie!”
“Oh, like those Eppies don’t gamble,” laughed another. “They just all sneak away from their holy city to do it.”
Another third identified himself as possibly Boffos by saying, “You’ve gotten enough money from me, Yaffa. And speaking of Eppies, did you even pay all of Big Hargo’s money to the one you sent on that bald dark-skinned Jedi?” So one of them had been an Epostulate; that was interesting. The second one, probably. “Or have you maybe pocketed a silver or two?”
“You gonna accuse me in front of Big Hargo?” asked the first, obviously Yaffa.
“Oh come on,” laughed a fourth. “None of us are that stupid. Who knows why that crazy wants the Jedi dead in the first place. You kill one, they just get more likely to send another. It’s inviting trouble, and when I don’t think they were even here for us. And the fact that he had an apprentice with him and now no one knows where she scattered off to…”
“Probably just sent her back to Coruscant,” said the second. Mace hoped they would all believe that one.
While the conversation had been going on, Mace had vaguely noticed that Xador was leaning more against the back of the closet, but he hadn’t really been paying attention to that. Until now, when he nudged Mace, and then gestured first to the wall, and then to his lightsaber.
Mace shook his head, and gestured to his ear. The closet door was a thin one; they’d hear the lightsaber hum right through it. Xador glared, but at least that was all he did.
Meanwhile, Yaffa was berating Boffos, but the latter seemed determined to pull out of the game. Finally he sighed, “Be lucky you don’t have to perform a forfeit. This time.”
“Not funny, Yaffa,” said the fifth mercenary.
“Oh maybe we should make you perform the forfeit instead, Rum?” The second one again. From the way he was snickering, Mace hoped the others didn’t agree. He did not particularly care to have to listen through that.
Especially when next to him Xador snickered too. Mace put a finger to him mouth, narrowly refraining from using his entire hand. The mercenaries were loud enough and sounded similar enough it had probably gone unnoticed, but they couldn’t even be sure. Xador pointedly took hold of Mace’s hand and moved it away, but at least he went silent.
Thankfully Boffos just said, “Nah, let’s get on with the game. Dalsi?”
The fourth mercenary, presumably Dalsi, answered, and the game went on. At one point Boffos yelled something very triumphant that sounded like it was in a language other than Basic, though not one Mace recognized. Rum and Dalsi promptly bailed out, and he seemed to now only be playing with the second mercenary, who had now been identified as Fasti. Next to Mace, Xador was now constantly fidgeting, and he thought the other man was nudging his legs on purpose.
“Oh, you ready to flee too, now, Fasti?” Boffos finally laughed. “We go on, I’m going to win that trinket you keep in that vault of yours.”
“Nobody touches that!” Fasti sounded angry. In the closet, Xador urgently tapped Mace’s shoulder until he looked over at him. He made a series of gestures that didn’t entirely make sense, and Mace shook his head impatiently.
“Look,” said Dalsi, “we should be going anyway. You know they’ll be by the river soon.” There weren’t any rivers in Colorpa. Unfortunately, they others all agreed quickly, without saying anything else that might have given some indication of what they meant. There was the sound of shuffling, of scooping various items off the floor, and then they were heading out. A couple of minutes, Mace decided, just in case one of them came back for something, and then they would be getting out of here…
“Finally!” He was too tired; Xador was pushing the door open and hurrying out before Mace realized it. “Really, Master Jedi, if we had to spent another second in there…”
“Not yet!” Mace hissed, grabbing him by the back of his tunic, but the door was flung open. Most of what was visible to Mace was simple bare walls and floors, and this was all unadorned shale, but even so he needed to get the doors closed without hitting Xador with them too hard.
A split second before he would’ve had it done, one of the mercenaries ran back in, eyes on a part of the room not visible to Mace. There was a split second where his focus remained on whatever he'd come back for, nodding as if he’d expected to find it still there.
Then he noticed the closet was open, and turned to see both of them, and yelled, “Everyone come back here!”
At least now Mace could make that hole in the wall Xador had suggested earlier, though he had to use a quick flick of the Force to knock the man out with his own drawn weapon, and he was only starting with it when the other four can back in. By then, Xador had grabbed two of the four shoes on the floor, and he threw them, but one went sailing into the wall, and while the other hit someone, it wasn’t a very heavy shoe, and they only stumbled back. Mace had to stop cutting so he could get in front of Xador and deflect their blaster bolts.
“Xador!” exclaimed one of the mercenaries, whose voice identified him as Rum. “What are you doing with a Jedi?”
“I was going to turn him in for a ransom!” sighed Xador. “After I used him to get to this chick.”
The first statement was a lie. The second was not. Mace didn’t think Xador realized he could tell that, although he was obviously hoping he wouldn’t actually believe the first at the very least.
He decided against enlightening him for the moment. Since the exchange hadn’t really disrupted the ongoing firefight, he simply said to him, “Well, my magnificent captor, if you want to turn me in to anyone, we need to both get out of here alive.” Since Xador didn’t actually have anyone to turn him in to, he was hoping he didn’t think of trying to say they’d take him dead or alive. “So if you could take this,” and he summoned the weapon of the downed man, “and cover for me?”
Thankfully the guy knew how to fire the blaster, and he even hit one of the men before Mace had finished carving the hole out. On the other side was another room, but Mace could spot a window that opened into the night. “Come on!” he yelled. When Xador, looking way too excited, just kept returning fire, at least until a bolt hit him in the leg, Mace hurled him through using the Force, ignoring both his wails and his protests. He dove through himself, propelling himself across the adjoining room until he was by Xador. “We can do this with my throwing you again,” he informed him, “Or you can grab onto me.” He hoisted him to his feet and said, “Choice is yours.” Xador glared, but he grabbed onto him. Thankfully he didn’t have to break through the window; it opened on command. Also there was no one on the street below. Which meant not only could they come down without worrying about anyone gaping, or much worse, but once they were on the ground, Mace was free to shove Xador up against the wall and demand, “Who were you using me to get to?”
“Hey,” Xador squeaked, “those guys’ll be out of the building and over here any minute, you idiot, and I don't know if I can walk!”
Mace did a quick scan through the Force, then said, “We have a few minutes. And I’m not taking you anywhere until I know what you’re up to. Tell me, or I'll leave you here for them to find.”
“Look, Bastard Jedi, it’s someone who wants to cause you trouble anyway, and we don’t have to go anywhere; sooner or later this chick’s going to come to you. I figured I could get out of the way, because you’d’ve told me to anyway, then catch her by surprise.”
How Xador had expected to get Mace to let him just walk off with such a valuable prisoner was a question of some concern, but he might have just genuinely not thought that far. Meanwhile, he was unfortunately right that they couldn’t stay where they currently were. “You should have told me earlier,” he hissed as he pulled back. “But now at least we can be more ready for her.”
Xador grinned, “You’re going to help me get her?”
“I make no promises of anything,” Mace growled back. “But our interests currently coincide, and when I’m done with him, *maybe* I’ll let you have her.” It was very unlikely he would, but it was possible, if all the circumstances ended up going very certain ways.
He wasn’t sure how far Xador trusted his words, but he got up a cocky grin anyway, and said, “All right, then. Can you do anything for my leg? You'll have to use that cloak of yours to bandage it, won't you?" He laughed as if that was the funniest thing in the universe.
Mace wasn't the best at Force healing, but at least he was able to get the guy walking normally. And yes, bandaged with part of his cloak, though his amusement went on far longer than was called for.
He took the lead at first, trying to put as much distance between them and their would-be pursuers as possible. But they gave up fairly easily, perhaps taking Dalsi’s opinion that he was too dangerous to be worth it. And when they were far away enough that it wasn’t quite as easy to track them through the Force anymore, when Xador started looking around, Mace asked him, “Anywhere in particular you were planning to go?”
“Need to figure out where we are first. Why don’t they they have street signs in this city anyway, not everyone in it has a hand-tracker…I don’t suppose your magic Jedi powers lets you know whether or not we’re anywhere near the transit tower…”
Most of the bigger cities on Avvarbor Prime had at least one of what were called transit towers, which were the main conductors and regulators of practically all the planet’s signal traffic. If Mace could get the data out of Colorpa’s, he thought, and combine with the information in Padmé’s router, they could probably map out most of the Sith’s communications network on the planet, maybe even within the solar system. If he could also even partially erase the records there of his and Padmé’s communications with each other, so much the better.
Still, “That seems an odd place for our quarry to be.”
“She works there, and at odd hours. Likes to be on shift at night. I haven’t actually heard about her doing anything outside her job description up there, but I’d be shocked to hear that she isn’t. Tonight, from what I hear, her shift ends in about an hour, so we want to get there before then?”
He was telling the entire truth there. “If it’s in this quarter of the city, which I’m fairly confident it is, I should be able to get us there within that time frame. Just give me a moment to do something else.” Mace stepped a little bit away from Xador as he took out his comm device.
He would’ve liked to have sent a voice message to Padmé, but he wasn’t having Xador know what he said to his Padawan. Writing one on the device with its tiny letterspread was a pain, and he had to keep it short if he didn’t want Xador getting impatient and trying to look. But he managed to type out, Noted. Hope to have more info very soon. Force be with you Padme. One thing she’d taught him was the value of this kind of message, the peace of mind it brought to both sender and receiver.
But then at last she read through it, and it was a promising message, all together. She took a minute to focus on the facts, and the next action for her, the here and now. She would try to gauge the following day whether it would be worth the risk to try to go into Ruuger’s City again, though she didnt't dare go near Tulson's house again. Hopefully “very soon” would mean by the end of that day; with Master Windu, it usually did. Her job might now end up being mostly making sure neither of the two people with her did anything stupid.
These two people were her mission, until further notice. That was the way it made Padmé happiest to think about it. They had booked a room with two beds, since the two of them had made clear their unwillingness to share one, and it hadn’t cost too much more. Padmé considered her options, then decided Clistara was unlikely to either be offended or read it wrong if the Padawan slept in hers with her.
Though while the bed was built for two, it did leave them lying pretty close together. Padmé found herself taking her first thorough look at the girl since she’d interrogated her back in Myzine. With her blonde curls tumbled every which way, she looked even younger than she had then. She might have even been younger than Padmé herself, though she wasn’t sure. Eposulates didn't see childhood as lasting very long, from what she'd heard. There was darkness still about her, but she didn’t look at all menacing. More tired, and oddly lost. Looking at her, there was a weird buzz at the back of Padmé’s mind, but she had no idea why.
It would be fine, she told herself. She’d know if Clistara was trying to deceive her. It was probably just anxiety, with the stakes so high and being separated from her Master, and still knowing too little about just what he was up to. And if it wasn’t, she could probably deal with it better after getting some sleep.
Oddly, after she closed her eyes, the last thing Padmé remembered thinking about before she dropped off was Anakin’s face.