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The main chamber of the Chermyn was affectionately called "the throne room" by the crew. C'Lon's large, comfortable chair dominated one side of the room. A bar lined one wall, complete with tall stools for the crew to sit on while one of them took turns pouring drinks. Several tables and couches were scattered about, leaving the center of the room empty. Customers, prisoners, and misbehaving slaves were often brought to stand in the center of the room, surrounded by the rough-looking crew and facing C'Lon on her large elevated throne. It was an effective arrangement; as a woman in a rough business, she needed all the posturing she could manage.

Settling into her chair, C'Lon stifled a yawn. The crew was in the midst of a party at the moment, and most of them were drunk. A few groups were engaged in various card games, while others clumped around the bar, taking turns playing bartender.

C'Lon could only hope there would be no fights tonight. They'd been traveling through a remote part of the Codovine sector for more than a standard week now without stopping for supplies or business. The men were getting restless and bored, and that almost always led to trouble.

Erat appeared at her shoulder, seemingly out of nowhere, as usual. He preferred to enter and leave the room by the back entrance, located behind the throne. C'Lon figured he was trying to avoid the attention of the rest of the crew.

Erat had gotten quite a bit of attention from the moment he set foot on the Chermyn ; even crew members who had previously sworn they didn't like males stopped to watch him walk by. He had a certain air about him of confidence and sex appeal that few could resist, and he'd spent the first few weeks on board fending off the amorous intentions of half the crew. A few of them still had the scars to show for their efforts. The men largely left him alone now, but Erat didn't take any unnecessary chances. He kept to himself when he wasn't on duty.

Or he stuck close to C'Lon's side. She smiled and nodded at him in greeting. She couldn't remember smiling much before he came on board. There just wasn't anything to smile about.

"Evening, milady," he said, voice pitched just for her ears. He settled into a chair next to hers, his now-customary spot. She'd never allowed anyone else so get so close to her before -- physically or emotionally.

"Hello, Erat. Have a good bath?" Fresh from the shower, he smelled a bit like soap, and his damp hair stuck out in several directions. It was darker when wet, she thought. The blue streaks blended in with the reddish brown so much they almost weren't noticeable. She couldn't resist an attempt at taming that mess with her fingers. "Is this a hairstyle or do you not own a comb?" she teased.

He grimaced and tried to wiggle away. "Who are you, my mother? What do you care what my hair looks like?" The grimace turned into another dazzling grin. "Maybe you'd like to wipe some dirt off my face with spit as well?"

"I've a mind to, occasionally," she shot back with a wink. She felt a strange compulsion to mother the boy, and it frequently caught her by surprise. Even though he was capable of taking care of himself, there were moments -- when he didn't know she was watching him -- that he seemed terribly young and alone. How a boy as talented as that had wound up in this sort of business was beyond her. She'd tried to ask him about it a few times, but he'd deftly evaded her probes. She didn't blame him. Everyone had a story, and sometimes that story was best kept private.

She had a story of her own, in fact, and she didn't share that with anyone.

"Want a drink?" he asked, nodding in the direction of the bar.

"Sure -- whatever you're having," she replied. He crossed the chamber to the bar, turning several heads as he did. He didn't have to wait on her like this, but when she protested, he always told her it was his job to take care of her. The men around the bar moved out of his way and mostly ignored his presence -- at least when he was looking. Behind his back, they ogled and exchanged lewd glances and whispers. He soon returned with drinks -- bottles of Temurian ale -- and they both sipped in silence, watching the scene around them.

"They're getting tense," Erat said at last, eyes drifting over the crew. "How long before the next planetside leave?"

"Too long," C'Lon muttered, shaking her head. "Five days. We'll be putting most of this group of slaves up for auction on Tyralius 4."

Erat nodded, eyes focused on his bottle. C'Lon knew he hated the business. He'd never said anything, but she could see it in his eyes, in his face. He'd only taken this job because she'd won his contract, and she had no doubt that he'd be gone the moment it was fulfilled. Once, she'd asked him why he stuck around -- he could have quit with a mildly uncomfortable cut in his pay and moved on to something else. He'd given her a tight smile and replied that he always honored his contracts. He needed his clients to trust him, he'd said, and quitting a job early would look bad; one got bodyguard positions by virtue of references from satisfied employers.

His head popped up suddenly, eyes scanning the room. C'Lon felt her body tense in response; she'd learned to interpret that particular expression as "trouble's brewing." She glanced in the direction he was looking and saw a heated discussion at one of the card tables. A small crowd was starting to gather around, anticipating a fight. Time to head this off.

"B'Wal! Chuga!" she shouted. The two men ambled over, grudgingly leaving the burgeoning argument. "Any discipline problems below?"

B'Wal grinned in response. "Yes, two. Want I should bring them up?"

"Pick one, for now," C'Lon replied, settling back into her chair. "We may need to keep the other one for tomorrow night." She turned her attention to the other man, an incredibly hairy humanoid whose exact species she had never figured out. "Chuga, don't let them get up from that table, or you'll be in charge of cleaning up the mess." Chuga nodded, clearly unhappy with his assignment. Both men walked away.

"Discipline, eh?" Erat sighed. C'Lon glanced at him. She knew how much he hated these displays. It was effective, though, and seemed to kill two mynocks with one shot.

Voices raised across the room, Chuga's among them, but no fight broke out. Chuga was almost sitting on the table now, arms outstretched between the would-be combatants, yelling more loudly than either of them. The room began to vibrate with the word "discipline."

A moment later, the doors at the far end of the chamber slid open, revealing B'Wal and a young male Twi'lek. B'Wal half-dragged the man forward to the center of the room and forced him to his knees before C'Lon. The Twi'lek kept his gaze firmly on the floor before him, but C'Lon could see that he was afraid. He knew what was about to happen to him. When one of these events occurred, the slaves tended to be very cooperative for weeks afterward. Word always traveled fast.

Pale blue headtails trembled, drawing C'Lon's attention from the man's barely-dressed body. This one didn't look like he would put up much of a fight. It was better when they were defiant.

She glanced around the chamber at the crew, trying to recall who had been especially well-behaved and productive of late. She took a long drag on her tabac stick, contemplating. The chamber was quiet, anticipation nearly a physical presence in the air as the men waited for her to speak.

She made her decision. "Chuga and Tantryyn." Cheers and groans erupted simultaneously, and were quickly replaced by discussions of odds and bets: how much would the slave struggle, would Chuga last more than two minutes, and so forth.

Tantryyn, a willowy long-limbed Balaask, stepped into the center of the room first, slowly circling the Twi'lek. The slave had crumpled into a heap, trembling and whimpering. Chuga swaggered forward, a wide grin on his grizzled face as he knelt in front of the prostrate slave. He pulled the man's head up with a large hand under his chin and chuckled as he unfastened his trousers with his free hand. He slid that hand to the back of the Twi-lek's head and pushed the slave's face firmly into his crotch. Tantryyn knelt behind the slave, spitting into his palm before stroking his sizeable length to hardness. He pulled the slave's ass up and pressed forward roughly. The slave howled and struggled at the intrusion, pushing Chuga away and crying out in a language C'Lon didn't recognize. Chuga cuffed the slave and barked out a threat before pulling his head back into position. The struggling ceased almost immediately, replaced by the grunting sounds of the two men fucking the Twi'lek on either end.

Tantryyn finished first, burying himself deeply in the slave with a grunt. The men who'd bet against Chuga groaned. Money was exchanged. Chuga began fucking the slave's mouth in earnest, ignoring the gagging sounds beneath him as he neared his own climax. C'Lon glanced around the room, trying to decide who to choose next. There were several possibilities. A low howl from Chuga signaled the end of round one, and the men broke into applause. The Twi-lek slumped to the floor, whimpering.

C'Lon heard the sound of the door behind the throne closing as Erat quietly slipped away.

C'Lon paced before the communications panel, trying to contain her impatience. She'd been waiting for hours to hear from the small band of hired thugs she'd sent to kidnap the Jedi younglings. She had used them many times before, and they were as reliable as anyone she'd ever worked with. But this situation was unusual, to say the least. After weeks of silence, they'd finally sent her a coded message yesterday -- Operation planned for tomorrow. Will contact at 1400 hours .

The console beeped, and she slammed her hand on the panel. "Yes."

"It's done," a weary voice stated. "We had casualties. I'll expect to be compensated."

"Yes, of course. I'll meet you at the rendezvous in two hours."

She cut the transmission and exhaled. She had the Jedi children. Now she just had to transport them to the client, collect the fee, and it was all over. She'd even sold off the last of the slaves they had aboard in anticipation of this final deal; all of the cells in the hold were empty.

She commed an assistant to prepare the room for two more slaves, and then headed for the shuttle bay. She was going to pick these children up herself; she wasn't taking any chances. No one on the crew knew the details of this little project, not even her bodyguard. She hoped to keep it as quiet as possible.

The shuttle bay doors opened and C'Lon eased the craft out into the vacuum, set the coordinates, and pushed the engines to full impulse. She slid down into her seat and exhaled slowly, trying to calm her racing heart. Only here, alone, would she admit to herself that she was terrified -- a feeling to which she was unaccustomed. So many things could go wrong.

Half an hour later, the shuttle docked with the Rolanthin. The owner of the gruff voice she'd heard on the comm appeared before her: a large, haggard Toralian. He appeared to be nursing a few serious-looking injuries.

"I'm sorry I ever took this job," he spat, glaring at her. "I lost half my crew. Half!" He turned on his heel and headed down a hallway. C'Lon swallowed hard and followed.

He stopped before a closed door and turned to face her. "Do you have the money?"

She fumbled at her belt and then handed him a pouch. "I added something to compensate you for your... loss."

He snorted defeatedly as he opened the pouch. "Frankly, I'd take anything, as long as you get them out of here." He whistled. "Aurodium ingots?"

She nodded. "My client was very concerned that the children be delivered unharmed. I trust that's the case?"

"Yes. They're mostly unharmed. Any injuries they sustained are due to their attempts to escape. They're heavily drugged now, and they've been fitted with Force-inhibiting arm bands. We only dug those up after they'd somehow convinced two of my crew to let them out and take them to an escape pod. They're only children, but... I hope you know what you're getting yourself into."

C'Lon nodded. "It's no longer your concern."

The Toralian palmed open the door and motioned for the man inside to bring the limp forms out. He slung one over each shoulder and headed towards the docking port, muttering, "Yer damn right it's not."

The door to the throne room slid open. C'Lon looked up from her chair and smiled with relief as Erat walked through.

"You're back. I trust everything went well?"

"Yes milady," he said, giving her a polite bow. "Lord Kolzaar wasn't as difficult to persuade as you'd led me to believe." He grinned and tossed a pouch of currency into her hands.

"You could have quite a future in this business, Erat," she replied, fingering the bag. She'd sent him in her place to collect payment from a difficult customer. C'Lon had come to trust her young bodyguard immensely in the months he'd worked for her. No one else would have been allowed to deal directly with money. Of course, no one else seemed to possess Erat's particular talents for persuasion, either. She really needed someone she could trust, now, and she'd thought of him first. "I have another assignment for you," she said, standing. "Come with me."

Erat followed her down two levels, down to the slave pens. She noticed he tensed when he realized where they were going.

C'Lon pursed her lips. Erat was a great kid, with a lot of potential. He could excel in the business, but deep down, she knew it wasn't what he wanted. He had mentioned once, after she'd pumped a good deal of brandy into him, that he often thought he'd like to be a teacher. He had a fondness for mathematics and astrophysics, and regretted that he hadn't had an opportunity to study those subjects more formally. He'd make a good teacher, she thought, though she had to admit she knew little about teaching herself. The bonus she planned to give him, in addition to his contract pay, ought to get him several years at a regional university. He was a painful reminder of the life she could have had, if she'd only done a few things differently.

No, she thought. I don't think about that anymore.

She palmed open the door of the security room. Tens of monitors lined one wall, each with a view of one of the cells. A large antiquated control panel allowed one to move cameras, zoom in and out on a particular area, and even pick up whispered conversations. The slaves had no privacy, and that was how she preferred it. She began adjusting the controls to find what she was looking for.

"Remember that big job we got offered a few weeks back?"

Erat nodded.

"I need your help with this. None of the crew knows the details."

She found what she was looking for and focused the camera on two small children huddling in a corner of the cell. She turned to Erat.

He was staring, wide-eyed, at the monitor. "Are you fucking insane?" He turned to face her, pointing at the screen. "Do you know what you have in there?"

"Jedi younglings," she said, watching his face carefully. "Twins."

He snorted, almost laughed, and stepped to the console to zoom the camera in on the faces of the children, who were now sleeping. "See those braids? Those are Jedi padawans. If you have two padawans, that means there are two very angry Jedi masters not far behind."

"One," she corrected. "There were two, but one was killed when the children were taken."

Erat closed his eyes and appeared to be steeling himself. "So, one dead master and two missing padawans." He leaned over the console, his head dropping. "Do you have any idea how bad this is? We won't survive to get those children to... to whoever paid you so fucking much." He turned away from the monitor, shaking.

C'Lon felt her stomach lurch. She'd never seen Erat nervous, let alone afraid. She had convinced herself over the last few weeks that this was possible, that it would work. His reaction only confirmed her worst fears. She crossed her arms over her chest and took a deep breath.

"Well, we can't go back now. Erat, you know how much money is at stake here. It's only for a few days, and then we can all disappear, rich."

"Not bloody likely." He shook his head sadly and looked up at her. "What was it you wanted me to do?"

"I need you to keep them safe, to keep them under control. Ordinarily I would have Rolaf do it, but he--" C'Lon grimaced. "You know how he fancies little girls. The client wants them unharmed, and I can only assume that means intact. Half the crew would love to get their hands on the boy. I know I can trust you not to..."

Erat pressed his hand to his temple, as if warding off a headache. "C'Lon, I'm not too picky about sex partners -- I don't have a particular preference for species or even gender, but I do draw the line at children." He wrinkled his nose in disgust. "If you want me to protect them, to take care of them while they're here, I'll be happy to do that." He shot her a hard look. "No harm will come to them, I can promise you that. I can't promise what might happen to any of the crew who come within ten meters of them."

She nodded. "I knew I could trust you. You're a good man, Erat." She sighed and her weathered features softened. "Too good for this business. When this is over, take your cut and go back to school. You're better than all of this."

He gave her a weak smile and turned to leave the room.

"I've coded the lock to your handprint," she called as he left. A few moments later, a light on the panel indicated that the door to cell A-23 had opened. She pulled back the camera view and turned the volume up.

Erat stood just inside the door, hands on his hips, watching the children from a distance. They had awakened and sprung to their feet the instant the door slid open. They stared at him, wide-eyed.

"My name is Erat," he said, his voice soft, but commanding. "I've been assigned to take care of you. Do as I say and no harm will come to you while you are here. Do you understand?"

The children nodded, still staring at him curiously. They didn't seem to be afraid of him, but neither did they appear to be plotting an attack -- at least not yet.

Erat had not moved a muscle. "Tell me your names."

The girl stepped forward. "I'm Manya, and this is my brother, Rill." They were beautiful children, 11 or 12 years old, with sandy hair and large blue eyes. The girl's hair was shoulder length, pulled back into a tail at the nape of her neck, with a slim braid hanging behind her right ear. The boy's face was identical to hers, though his hair was cropped very short, and he had the same braid. The boy took a step forward to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his sister, but said nothing. Their eyes were searching Erat now, as if looking for a weakness. C'Lon snorted. Even with the Force-inhibiting armbands, those deceptively angelic creatures were dangerous.

"You must obey me, do you understand?" Erat continued, not the least bit intimidated by them, despite the fact that he seemed well-aware of how dangerous they were. "I will bring you your meals and will be checking on you frequently. If you listen to me, you will be safe here. If you do not cooperate, I cannot help you. Do you understand?"

They nodded and stepped back into the corner of the room, clinging to each other. "Yes, sir," they whispered in unison, now looking for all the galaxy as if they were afraid Erat would eat them for dinner. They hadn't been the least bit afraid of C'Lon, nor of their captors on the Rolanthin. Erat looked up at the camera and smiled tightly at C'Lon.

"Well, fuck me," she whispered to no one in particular. That boy had a gift.

Just as the Haradian had said, C'Lon received a communiqué from the mysterious client within a day of bringing the Jedi children on board. The message included coordinates and a date and time for the rendezvous.

They had spent the last four days in hyperspace, heading towards the coordinates where they would meet the man who was willing to pay a small fortune for Jedi padawans. Erat spent much of that time with the children: talking with them, bringing them meals, sometimes just sitting quietly and watching them. C'Lon had quickly grown bored of watching the video monitors and had returned to spending her free time in the throne room with the crew.

She was mildly surprised to see him appear shortly after mid-day meal and settle into a chair near hers with a bottle of ale in hand.

"How are they?" she asked.

"As well as can be expected."

She eyed him carefully. Erat seemed a little too attached to the children, in C'Lon's opinion. She could hardly blame him, as he obviously wasn't a hardened slaver, but she was already worried this would cause a problem when they reached their destination.

"I've been thinking," he said, picking at the label on his bottle. "Perhaps when we deliver the children... do you think the customer would be interested in hiring me?"

C'Lon nearly choked on her own drink. "Why would you want to do that?" It was clear to her that he hated slavery and hated being associated with the business at all, so why would he want to hire himself out to a slave owner? She sighed, seeing the intense sadness on his face. He probably wasn't even aware how clearly she could read him. She also knew she was the only person on the ship he ever talked to, about anything. He had to be lonely. "You've grown fond of them, haven't you?"

He nodded, staring at his own hands. "You're planning to release me from my contract anyway. They're clearly very valuable to the client, and I have a good rapport with them. Perhaps he would want to hire me as their caretaker."

She kept her expression skeptical. "What if he wants to harm them, or use them in some manner to which you object?"

He frowned, shrugging. "Well, he probably wouldn't be interested in hiring me in that case."

A voice over the comm interrupted them: "Dropping out of hyperspace in two minutes." Time to rendezvous with the supply ship.

"I don't think it's a good idea, Erat," she said, and drained her glass. "In fact, I think it'd be fucking suicidal."

"Perhaps, but..." He pursed his lips and looked up at her. "You could think about it. Maybe there's something you could do."

C'Lon was surprised by the intensity in his eyes. She sighed, shaking her head. It was, after all, Erat's choice. If he wanted to commit suicide, who was she to stop him? "I'll think about it," she replied. "Maybe there's something I can do."

Once the supplies were loaded and paid for, the ship jumped to hyperspace again. C'Lon settled back into her chair, watching the crew lounging around her, enjoying drinks and playing cards. Erat was standing nearby, staring out of a port into space. C'Lon frowned. Erat seemed to have a sort of sixth sense about approaching trouble, and his body language was telling her something was wrong.

She stood and moved to stand beside him. "You seem tense."

Erat turned to stare at her, surprised. "No. Not really."

His eyes locked on hers. She was probably imagining things, she realized. She was wound up about the upcoming rendezvous with the client, and it was natural that he would be, as well.

C'Lon sighed. "Relax, Erat. I understand. I'm so fucking nervous that I've spent a good part of the day in the 'fresher. No one will be happier than me when this deal is over. Except maybe the cleaning staff."

He grinned and looked out the port again.

"I've been thinking about your proposal," she said.

He turned back to her. "Yes?"

An alarm sounded, jolting them both. C'Lon checked her commlink, and her eyes widened at the numeric code displayed on the small panel.

"Intruder alert, in the cargo hold!" she shouted.

The crew scrambled for their weapons and headed out. Erat, reflexes incredibly sharp, was the first out the door. C'Lon followed, drawing her own weapon.

"Erat!" she called down the corridor. He turned to face her as the crew streamed by him. "There's some particular cargo I want you to keep an eye on."

He hesitated, and she knew he was struggling, wanting to follow the crew. He finally nodded and headed the opposite direction, toward the slave pens. C'Lon ran down the corridor after the men, already fearing what she would find. Blaster fire echoed down the hall, along with a strange humming sound she couldn't quite place. She flattened herself against the wall and peeked around the corner.

A tall Jedi knight, lightsaber in hand, was there in the middle of the corridor, repelling blaster bolts harmlessly into the walls. He could easily deflect those bolts directly at her men and kill them if he so wanted. For some reason, he was taking great care not to injure anyone.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped around the corner. "Hold your fire!"

Everyone, including the tall Jedi, turned to look at her. For a moment, she found herself lost in the steely blue eyes of the man. She shook it off and stepped closer to him. He was younger than her, still in the prime of his life, and was clearly powerful. A trim beard just beginning to show grey highlighted his strong features, and long dark hair was pulled away from his face. He lowered the lightsaber and turned to face her, acknowledging her as the leader of this group. The other men backed down, weapons still at the ready.

"All right, Jedi," she snapped. "What in the hells are you doing sneaking onto my ship?"

He was eerily calm and composed, considering the circumstances. "I believe you have something that does not belong to you. I intend to retrieve it."

How the hell did he know about the children? He stared through her, and she suddenly regretted not having Erat by her side. She had a bad feeling about all of this, as if there was no way they would all get out of this situation alive.

"You're surrounded, Jedi. Do you really think you could retrieve your... belongings and escape in one piece?" She glanced at the co-pilot and the weapons came up again. She stepped forward and pressed the muzzle of the blaster against the Jedi's forehead.

He smiled, completely unfazed by her threat. "I can and I will." She cocked the blaster, and his smile tightened. "Though perhaps not at this particular moment. Rest assured, I will leave this ship with those children."

A thousand angry retorts ran through C'Lon's mind, as well as an impulsive desire to spit in the Jedi's face, but she did nothing. "Well, Jedi, as we are currently in hyperspace and you are trespassing, we have every legal right to confine you until such time as we can hand you over to authorities." Of course, the authorities would be more interested in C'Lon and her crew than in a trespassing Jedi. Jedi could break the laws whenever they wanted, and the authorities always looked the other way. C'Lon scowled, anger pooling in her gut. "If you play nice with the boys here, I might not kill you."

The Jedi simply stared at her. C'Lon flirted with the idea of pulling the trigger then and there, but killing a Jedi ensured one of a death sentence -- usually carried out by the next Jedi one encountered. Besides, this Jedi might prove to be useful.

"B'Wal," she said, not tearing her eyes from the Jedi's. "Help our guest dress for dinner." She took the lightsaber from the Jedi's hand, somehow surprised that he let her do it, even though her blaster was still pressed into his forehead.

"With pleasure, milady," B'Wal sneered before pressing a hypospray to the Jedi's neck. The man grimaced as the drug took effect, and then slumped to the ground. B'Wal and two other thugs dragged him away.

C'Lon watched the Jedi disappear, wondering what the hell she should do with him.