That ruled out most of the things Padmé had thought of doing that day, and she didn’t want to try to go back into Ruuger’s City too soon. And when she pulled herself up, and saw Nyder still in bed, but wide awake, and looking like he’d been that way for a while, though she knew he’d been asleep when she’d turned in, she had the feeling he’d be trouble if she didn’t give him something to do today.
So she gave Clistara a little bit of time to properly wake up and go in and out of the fresher, and then she asked, “Clistara, exactly how much do you know about Epostulate activity here in Alopi?”
She shrugged. “I’ve shown you the only location I know about for sure. I suppose there must be others somewhere in the city, some only a few people know about. I don’t think they can be anywhere near this place, though, if they don’t want everyone finding them. Everyone who comes to the Uproom has looked around. For many of us, it was the first place we came outside Ruuger’s City, so of course most were going to a little, even if we had to do it on the sly. I did, and never found anything.”
That all made sense, so Padmé continued, “How much of the city have you been in? You seem to have known your way around the east side of it…”
“Between here and the gate we’ve come through I know pretty well, and I’m not the only one. But I don’t think very many of us have been very far west or north of the Uproom. North isn’t a nice part of town, at least from what I’ve been told. Everyone poor and lots of crimes.”
“What about abandoned buildings?” Nyder asked; he was obviously thinking the same thing as Padmé.
Clistara understood fast herself. “They didn’t say anything specific about them being there. Maybe they are there, I don’t know. Anywhere we can find out, or do we have to go there and look?”
The three of them doing that was a bad idea, of course. But Padmé had from her readings about Alopi learned the answer to Clistara’s question: “Yes, but network access is very tightly controlled here. In order to do it without anyone finding out we’re here, we’re probably going to have to pay for it.” She thought briefly about learning how to hack, and how to break into Alopi’s network on their own, but the simple fact was that they didn’t have the knowledge. “Considering we have to keep enough money to stay here and eat for at least a few more days, I probably don’t have enough for more than an hour at most.”
“Networks…” Nyder sighed. “I don’t think either of us have ever even been on those. I mean, I think I maybe know how it works, but…”
“Then you’re going to be on one today,” Padmé decided, because that was a skill they did need to learn, or they were pretty much trapped in the world of the Epostulates, which she would have found wrong even if they hadn’t been under the power of the Sith. But they still had to be clever when they only had an hour of use, and anyway, these two could still do with something to do for the rest of the day. “I do have some information on me about exactly how they work in this city. So I suggest that after we have some breakfast, you two come back up here and start reading, while I go looking at the rest of the town and see if I can find anything.”
She ended up staying with them for about an hour after breakfast, just making sure that they understood what they were reading. But eventually she left them both scrolling their way through her data pad. After a bit of consideration, she redonned her normal tunics and cloak. In general the citizens of Alopi were pretty much indifferent to Jedi, and when there likely only a few minions of the Sith in the city, if indeed there were any at all, she could elude those in any outfit.
For most of the rest of the morning, as she walked in the bad section of town, Padmé sensed nothing. Well, nothing besides the usual misery and desperation this kind of place didn’t need a Sith or his minions around to be saturated with. She knew she had to stay focused on the mission and attract as little attention to herself as possible. But it was impossible for her to just walk past every house emitting distress. Most of them were situations where she couldn’t help much anyway, but three times she broke and intervened.
The first two times were helping to heal sick children, and didn’t even take her too much time, or too much out of her. As she left the second hovel, she found herself wondering if, should she survive to her knighting, she might look into becoming a Healer full time; she knew she was unusually good at it.
But the third was when she heard violence going on, a woman screaming at a man to please stop, and Padmé, having forced herself already to walk past a mugging and a case of a man verbally berating his entire family, had her lightsaber out and was running inside before she could stop herself. She cracked an already damaged door straight in half and making an enough of a commotion that by the time she found the two of them the man actually had stopped, pulled his underwear back up, and turned to face her, while the woman had pulled all her clothes back on, gotten up and shrunk back against the wall. She was probably scared of her rescuer too, poor thing.
“Did you just break my door?” The man demanded, possibly angrier at that than anything else; Padmé supposed he probably didn’t have the money for a replacement.
“You are lucky,” she growled in response, “if I don’t break anything else of yours.” The most practical thing, she knew, would be to get the woman out of the place and then retreat herself. Her hood was still up, and keeping her face unseen might save the mission and everything that was at stake on it. Besides, it was unquestionably wrong for her to seek justice herself, and if she turned him over to the authorities, Padmé knew the chances of him getting it weren’t too high.
So she deactivated the lightsaber and put it back on her belt, turned to the woman, and held her hand out. “Come with me. Come away from here.”
For a long moment, she thought she might be too scared. But then she stumbled forward. Padmé moved forward extended her arm, still keeping her distance; she wasn’t going to be the one to make physical contact right now.
But instead it was her attacker who lurched over to her with a, “No, you are going to listen when I tell you-” That was as far as he got before Padmé had reacted, and a slight use of the Force sent him tumbling back. But she turned her head, just to make sure she didn’t knock him into anything damaging, and turned it too quickly, and her hood slipped.
It wasn’t entirely a turn for the worse, because when the woman saw her face, she immediately grabbed her hand. The man didn’t seem to react to it anyway; he just lunged at her, retreating only when Padmé drew her lightsaber again. The two of them walked quickly away from him, and didn’t stop until they were safely back out on the street.
“Are you all right?” Padmé asked her, glancing around and seeing the street was empty; she could leave her hood down a minute or so more at minimal risk.
“I’m not hurt,” said the woman, glancing around with her. “You’d better be careful though, Master Jedi. There are people in this city on the hunt for you, or at least for some Jedi. The story was that he was an older, dark skinned man without any hair, though.”
“Who’s saying that?” Padmé concentrated on keeping her voice soft; she could not keep the anxiety out of it.
She shrugged. “Everyone, I don’t know. I won’t tell anyone about you if you want, but that man might comm someone.”
“Thank you for telling me that. Is there anything more I can do for you?”
The woman considered it for a moment, then said, “Keep yourself safe.”
Padmé spent the rest of her time there too much on edge, not quiet able to release her anxiety into the Force without sacrificing more concentration than she could afford right now. But she had already surveyed most of the area, and there was nothing else to tip her off.
On her way back to the inn, she managed to establish contact with her Master, with him able to get himself alone to talk to her. When she told him what had happened, she was secretly glad he wasn’t there to show his trepidation about her interference, and had reached the point where he usually didn’t try to scold her over a comm. “Try to stay in the more prosperous parts of the city for now,” he told her instead. “I think had there been anything vital for you to find in the poorer neighborhoods, one of us would have sensed that by now. But also make sure you can shepherd your two companions as well as yourself out of Alopi quick if you have to.”
That was probably going to leave them on standby completely, Padmé thought, at least after they’d used up their network time.
“So let me get this straight,” Xador started with. “You want me to give up a certain and huge reward for a much less certain one I know you, Master Jedi, might not even let me keep, just because you think going after Big Hargo’s the right thing to do?”
“You knew perfectly well,” Mace replied to him, “that I would always potentially keep you from keeping Big Hargo’s reward.”
“And how much do you really want to have an association with Big Hargo?” Edny argued. “He might let you take the reward and walk away, but it’s more likely he’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse, and you’ll spend the rest of your life doing things for him, clutching whatever he’s willing to give you in return, and living in fear of the day you do something and he decides he doesn’t like you anymore. Sure, you’ll make lots of money, but would it be worth that?”
“That is something I’d prefer to avoid,” Xador conceded, but he still sounded reluctant.
Mace stretched his mind out slightly, but no, he remained as immune to Force persuasion as he’d been this entire time. He really was stronger-minded than most would give him credit for.
“Besides,” he added, “being associated with the Jedi carries its own risks.”
“Nobody will know you were if I can help it,” said Mace. “Not even for your own sake; this is that kind of mission. There may be rumors, of course, but deny everything long enough, and more people than not will eventually believe you.”
Xador was looking at him now with a little bit of curiosity mixed with more amusement. “You’re really not what I always figured the Jedi were.”
“I admit not all of them approve of me.”
“No, they wouldn’t would they? But you know what the crazy thing is? I like you. I really do. I know,” he held a hand up, an odd contrast to his smirk. “Feeling’s not mutual. But you’re lucky. I’m willing to forgive you for that.”
“Are you willing to help us out because of it?” inquired Edny.
Xador gave an impression of thinking about it Mace could tell pretty quickly was mostly faked. He hadn’t walked into this room with his decision made, but it was made now. Mace patiently waited it out, before he said, “For this one thing? Yes. I make no promises if you ever come back here, Master Windu, or even if you stay for much longer.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Mace replied. One way or another, he certainly had no intention of ever being in Xador’s company or needing anything from him one he finally got out of this city.
“So,” said Edny, sounding so relieved Mace was glad Padmé wasn’t here to be vulnerable to that, “we’re doing this. And the sooner, the better. Plans don’t remain secret for long in Colorpa, Master Jedi.”
“Well, we can’t do it tonight,” said Xador. “Big Hargo’s meeting with the town’s other two big guys, and probably also his moles on the force. We show up there, he might stop at nothing to get us all killed for knowing too much-and your Padawan would have to stay far away from this planet forever, Master Windu. Even if we do it tomorrow night, we’d have to make sure beforehand that doesn’t go into a second night. I can find that out for you. I know how to listen on the street.”
If Mace hadn’t been very good at sensing deception, he would’ve been very skeptical indeed. But sensing no deceit, even towards himself, from Xador, he instead asked, “And how well do you know Big Hargo’s headquarters?”
“Not as well as I do,” said Edny. “I can make you a drawing. Anyone have any paper? Anything?”
“We should get out of here before we start anything like that,” said Master Windu.
“We’re not going to my place,” she growled, and looked at Xador.
He looked so dismayed Mace started contemplating whether he should offer to rent a room, or whether that was being too nice to these people. But then he sighed, “Fine. But don’t complain about the smell.”
It wasn’t the smell Mace noticed when stepped into his tiny compact apartment a little while later. The presence of the Dark Side was not terribly strong, the one who had brought it there probably hadn’t spent prolonged amounts of time there. But it was present, and concentrated within the four walls that Xador took a turn around, before digging a rough papyrus-like sheet and a stylus out of a wall drawer.
Edny stretched it out on the floor and got to work. She made lines slowly, occasionally looking at the sheet for minutes before drawing another one. This was going to take time Mace decided to make use of, and he went and sat in the other corner and said, “Back off and give her some room to breathe, Xador.” It was close enough quarters that to do that brought Xador pretty close to him.
He leaned in, and murmured, “If we’re going to be spending any prolonged amount of time here, I need to know if anyone special knows where you live. It might not be a bad idea to tell me even if you intend to keep living here.”
Xador looked skeptical at that second statement, and sounded sullen when he said, “I don’t bring many people here. Not many of them would fit, would they? Though I did take a lass back here recently, if you know what I mean.” That lewd smirk was very unnecessary, but also short-lived, as he continued, “And then a man who claimed to be her brother came barging in two days later, but he didn’t hurt me. But he was…I don’t even know, but I just found him to be scary, you know.”
Mace’s mind was already trying to figure out why such a man would be coming to Xador when he was pretty damn sure he had never been a particularly significant person in Colorpa’s underground. But more information he could still get immediately: “Did you learn his name? Or hers?”
He shook his head. “She said her name was Blaya. I suppose if she was real close to big Hargo or someone else or something she could’ve been using a fake one. Don’t remember any family name. Her brother just said he was her brother. It was scary enough answering his questions; I didn’t ask any.”
“Anything about what he asked you in particular stand out?” Mace asked, hoping he didn’t take that question as a cue to go into unneeded details.
But Xador just shrugged. “Nah, just where I’d met her and if we’d swapped contacts and did I ever expect to see her again? He would’ve scared me out of it even if I had planned to, and I hadn’t. Though he looked around my place as if he thought he might see something interesting there, but I don’t think he saw anything.”
It was less likely, Mace thought, that either he or Blaya been targeting Xador for anything than that they’d simply been worried he was targeting them. “Can you at least give me a physical description of the two of them?” he asked.
Of course he could give a very thorough physical description of Blaya. Not all the details were ones Mace would likely be able to use for identifying her, but he took note of her number of visible piercings, the description of her plucked eyebrows, and even her “flashy” walk. Her alleged brother he described as “tall, pale, long dark hair in a braid. His ears were unusually small. Dressed really simply, completely unlike her. Grey eyes moved around a lot; I tell you, it was unnatural.”
All the while Edny had been working, and now she had the ground floor drawn out and was working on the upper level. The two men knelt to examine her work so far. “Two entrances,” Mace mused out loud. “Either likely to be less guarded than the other?”
“Maybe the one in the back,” said Edny, “especially if it’s a busy night. Of course the doors of both entrances are alarmed.”
According to the lines she’d drawn, there was a long hallway between two sets of rooms that led to the back entrance, meaning they’d have to traverse it before doing anything else. “So if they’re going to know we’re there immediately, I might as well come in the front, where we’ll be less boxed in. It would be better if you two didn’t come in with me. If we want for you to be in there, you’ll have to either get in before or sneak in after.”
“I like the first,” said Xador, grinning.
“I prefer the second,” said Edny, hastily.
“I am not making that decision yet,” Mace informed both of them. “What are in each of these rooms? Do you know?”
“These two are offices,” she pointed to the two rooms to the right of the front entrance. “This one,” the room to the left of the hall from the back entrance, “is where Big Hargo entertains most of his guests. There’s this large table with two plain chairs and two hideous ones, and a large portable vid screen. The rest of the rooms I’ve never been into, though I’m pretty sure that one,” she pointed to the room opposite one of the offices, “usually contains contraband.”
Mace took in those rooms, particularly the one he had guests in. “How far is this to scale?” he was asking, when his comm chirped. The feeling of foreboding that instantly hit him had him standing up with an, “Excuse me,” and hurrying out of the apartment to answer it.
Sure enough, he barely had time to get a “Yes,” out, before Padmé, her voice steady but unable to conceal her distress, said to him, “Master, I think I’ve picked up a stalker, and one who has been at least touched by the Dark Side, and probably more.”
Instantly the resulting options ran through Mace’s head, as he calmly asked, “How long do you think he’s been tracking you?”
“Not long. I first became suspicious of it when I took Nyder and Clistara out to log in. I spent the entire time we were there with a very strong feeling we were being watched, and we’d dressed to blend in. And when I asked the two of them about it, they spoke of the same feeling. Then when we left, I saw someone else leave. A figure covered in enough clothes I couldn’t tell sex or even species; all I could see was a sliver of pale skin and eyes. We got back to the inn as fast as we could, but I think I caught a glimpse of him behind us halfway there. And I could sense the Dark Side coming from him. I don’t know if he’d even Force-sensitive. If he isn’t, he might have lost us; the street was really crowded.”
“Can’t take the chance,” said Mace, “even if you can’t sense him around at the moment.”
“No, I can’t,” said Padmé. “Not that I think Nyder entirely believes me when I tell him. I’m not sure how much longer I can talk to you away from him, Master; I’m seriously worried he might run off.”
Mace considered for a second, then said, “Then you’d best get them moving along with you first. I think it would be better if you moved out of Alopi for a few days. Not too far; I’d prefer if one of us is able to go back and retrieve the router within a few hours at all times. The city of Tanzer is close enough, and I know they automatically let in anyone who’s been let into Alopi. Try traveling at the most crowded time of day if you think it’ll help. And I’ll try to get over to you as fast as I can.”
Maybe, Mace thought, after they’d said goodbye and cut the connection, he should keep things simple here in Colorpa. He’d committed to doing this thing with Big Hargo, and it was still probably a good idea that didn’t lose him *too* much time, especially if he could also learn a bit more about which members of the city’s underground were after him and Padmé. But after that, he would see if Edny would get him access to the transit tower data, and then he could finally leave town.
As she started to pull herself up, he stopped and glared at her, which wasn’t exactly the response she’d expected. “I just want to know one thing,” he said. “What did you do to possibly get us stalked?”
“What makes you think she did anything?” Clistara asked. “They really could’ve started doing it without that, trust me.”
“I know,” he said, “but she’s not very good at hiding guilt.”
Padmé had been around the galaxy enough to know how he might react if she told him she’d stopped a rape. Now was not the time to argue about such things either. So she just said, “That doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, really?” he sneered, and oh no. She should’ve expected it, she supposed, with the amount of stress involved in their current situation.
Clistara came to her rescue, snapping, “Are you really going to waste time with that? Let’s just get out of here, okay?”
“You know, I really don’t trust you,” he turned on her. Her response was just to focus hard on strapping on her shoes.
“As I was saying,” Padmé took advantage of the pause, “we’re going to head for Tanzer. We show we’ve been in Alopi, we’re automatically let in, it’s not too hard to hide out there, and we can hope my Master will be able to come there before long. He’s one of the most powerful Jedi there is.”
“Your Master, huh?” Clistara looked up, and now suddenly she appeared wary.
Padmé could guess why. “He won’t hurt you,” she said, because that much she could be certain of. “He may ask you a lot of questions, of course.”
“I’ll be lucky if that’s all he does,” said Clistara, growing angry.
“Isn’t that inevitable anyway?” Nyder pointed out to her. “Now who’s the one making pointless fussing?”
Another pause, and Padmé said, “We’ve got about half an hour before most people in the city get out of their jobs and the streets will be at their most crowded. We leave by the city’s southern entrance, we’ll be out within the hour. They offer rides there, and under the circumstances, I think we can pay for one if it doesn’t cost too much.”
“We can get one without paying for it,” said Clistara. “I know how.”
“You really think she’ll agree to that?” laughed a scornful Nyder.
Normally he would’ve been right, but in the current situation, Padmé simply replied, “Not if it’s easy for us to pay for it, or even take public transit. If it’s that or spent more than a day and a half out on the roads between cities, though, I would be willing to do it. Keeping all three of us alive and away from detection takes priority over everything right now.”
That last line had definitely been a good idea. Padmé could sense some of the general bad feelings stewing in the both of them subside a little. So she finished, “Hopefully we’ll be able to get a cheap one. So let’s start getting everything together.”