Mid Rim, Ord Mantell, Ord Mantell City, City Centre
5 weeks after the events of the RoS…
Raleien Sonavarret sat on a plastoid bench. The old, grizzled soldier was an immovable sentry amid the urban chaos. All around him, shopkeepers and hawkers cried their wares and passers-by spoke with one another amiably. Their voices melded into a cacophony of city song that sounded like a fighting pack of beasts hounded by insects. Intense, intermingling aromas of the myriad food stalls, durasteel buildings, cleaning supplies, rubbish, and people invaded one’s nostrils. The planet’s strikingly blue sun bathed the area in a late spring glow. It was a bustling metropolis at the peak hour of a commercial workday.
And it may also be the site of a clever trap set exclusively for him.
Passers-by pretended to take no notice of the large, cerulean skinned man sitting on one of several public benches. They ignored his battered armor and his array of weapons and gadgets that were clearly visible through a plain dark cloak. The slung rifle was especially an odd sight, but Raleien kept the barrel smartly facing the ground.
You could tell a soldier from a street rat by the way they treated their weapons. This old hound was not a fan of accidents, nor of pointing a weapon at someone unless he meant it.
Blasters weren’t an odd sight on the commercial Mid Rim world. Weapons and armor were common due to lax laws. But Raleien had the look of a man who had been through hell and back. One look at his weather-worn, pockmarked face and his faded family emblems tattooed on forehead and cheeks was enough for most folk to realize he had been around the bend. When you see a man like that, one might begin to wonder what he was doing sitting still. Others might wonder, and then turn and walk away. The latter was a smart move. While he appeared to lounge casually, the old soldier was not relaxed in the slightest. He was tense, focused, and in control, wound up like a coil ready to spring.
He had learned this control over decades of battle. He had trained in the Empire, and upon its fall he had found work fighting private wars. He had lived through decades of battle, and part of him yearned for more. Another part of him, deep inside, was being destroyed by it.
There’s a reason that the Loyalist had lived as long as he had. In comparison to many of his former Imperial colleagues, he had been more skilled than most. He was able to hit a target reliably, anyway. Because of this, he had been assigned to elite Imperial squadrons that would follow the shock troops to continue the fighting in earnest. These experiences had shaped him into a weapon. A scalpel, a bludgeon, or a spear, depending on who asked and what needed to be done. First he had been used by the Empire, and then the Remnants, and then this oligarchy or that company – oh, they had used him, indeed. Recently he was used by whoever paid the best rate or inspired in him the drive to destroy. Destruction helped him forget.
He had aligned himself with a group of second-rate pirates and freedom fighters on Dandoran. They had called themselves the Tenixir Revenants. Their rivals, the so-called Severian Principate, had not drawn his eye at the time. They were another Remnant faction without the will to exert true dominance. Besides, he had another reason for finding solace in the Revenants. While he sought the drive to destroy, he also felt immeasurable guilt for his past actions. Therefore, it was their objective: to seek retribution, by any means necessary, against the Principate which attracted him. The soldier in him felt a spark of compassion for their plight. Those honourable scoundrels sought justice of the kind Raleien could deliver: by the barrel of blaster, the thrust of a knife and the brute deliverance of fist to flesh. He felt drawn to their single cause, and he had felt useful helping them on Dandoran.
The Galactic Empire had endowed Raleien with the skills of his trade, in exchange for being used. They had called it duty. Through duty, they had convinced Raleien to obediently follow orders, including those that crossed moral and ethical boundaries. But in his older age, he lived with the impact of this indoctrination. His mind was slowly cracking under the weight of guilt and shame he felt about his actions. It would be a long while before his trauma manifested into debilitating symptoms, he suspected. Perhaps years. One way he avoided thinking was to throw himself back into the fight, any fight, so long as he stopped ruminating on the past and was forced to live in the moment. But one day he would have to face his past.
Soldiers like Raleien fed the fire of war. Often, warriors burned hot and fast, their lives cut short in pursuit of the power and glory of their superiors. Others were like Raleien. They were cut of sterner stuff, perhaps. Or they were just lucky. But they still burned, in the end. He now thought of himself as a pile of hot coals in his advancing age. Coals gave off an immense amount of heat, but did not produce a brilliant crimson flame. In the end, even coals would dim, left to smothered underfoot into nothing more than ash left to drift on the wind.
Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away, Raleien thought. An old soldier’s proverb whose origin had been lost to time.
Raleien shook himself. I’m getting lost in my own head.Focus.
He looked up and scanned his surroundings. A datapad, what felt like long ago, had been left for him with the words of some obscure organization in a ruin on Dandoran: Scholae Palatinae. What little he could discover about this organization – which was scarce little – made him feel uneasy. Another Empire, it was said, that was part of an even larger Brotherhood. But these folks from Scholae Palatinae, they were the literal shadow of the now dead Galactic Empire. And if he had barely heard of them, they were certainly a scarce shadow.
They sought his services, it seemed, or else he was about to die for something he may have done to one of their kin in the past.
His golden eyes caught movement to his right. A young human woman dressed in plain clothes walked toward him. She was clearly unarmed, though a communications device was attached to the belt of her fine robes. However the lack of weapons made her no less dangerous. She walked like a Nexu, a large feline-like creature. Her every step was graceful and sure, likely from years of martial training. Her brown hair was tied back in a neat ponytail, and as she came to stand before him, he noticed her deep brown eyes and a small grin on her face. She had made herself known, he suspected.
“Are you Raleien?” She asked over the din of the crowd.
He nodded, gripping his blaster rifle tight. He was ready to aim and shoot if the need arose.
Her grin turned into a smile as she noticed his movement. “Scared of an unarmed woman?”
“You’re the weapon,” Raleien said in his gravelly bass voice, “and I never underestimate anyone.”
“Good. You’re a wise man. Often a wise person can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer. Sadly, you provided a wise answer. May I sit?”
“You speak in riddles.” He gestured to an open space beside him on the bench.
With an elegant flourish of her cloak, she sat in a noble posture, straight-backed and attentive, though she scanned her surroundings with a keen, experienced eye.
“I do,” she admitted. “But what you call riddles, I call the learned wisdom of ages.”
“So what brings you to my bench, riddle master?”
“My name is Xiaying, and I come on behalf of the benefactors that contacted you on Dandoran,” she began, ignoring his quip. “We wish to secure your services and talents. This would involve traveling off-world to meet your benefactors in our domain.”
“Certainly there might be other folks who are more interested?” Raleien asked.
“Don’t consider yourself special. We approach persons of interest regularly,” Xiaying said.
“And I’m one of them?” he asked.
“Clearly,” she said.
“I see,” Raleien responded. “Why –“
“Why you?” She interrupted sharply. “My superiors observed some of your actions on Dandoran. You’re a capable soldier, with a good head for tactics, and you’re able to do what needs to be done.”
“I’m flattered you think I’m good at killing, but that doesn’t answer my question.”
“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”
Another proverb of ancient knowledge, he surmised.
But he didn’t interrupt her as she continued, “Men who live as long as you do, and in your line of work – well, they’re the most dangerous.”
“Genius can be recognized by its childish simplicity,” he quoted from memory, an ancient Pantoran proverb. “And showing off is the fool’s idea of glory. So please: speak plainly. No proverbs.”
“So you’re not just a brute. Fascinating.” She nodded her head in respect before speaking again.
“In truth, our forces have seen action recently. Dandoran was only one such example. We need new blood to fill the ranks. Therefore, you’ve been selected as a candidate to serve in a variety of military functions, including close protection duties, among others.”
Raleien looked around for a moment, checking to make sure no one was listening. Then he said, “Are you trying to hire me as a bodyguard?”
“Recruit,” she corrected, holding up a finger. “We are trying to recruit you, and principally as a bodyguard. You would be in command of a small, elite force that will most certainly see action at some point or another. And potentially other duties I have not been made aware of.”
Other duties, Raleien mused. Cryptic.
“What’s in it for me?” he asked.
“A commission, pay, training, lodging, food, fine equipment and competent team members. Also, a planet to call home besides Pantora. And action. Likely lots of it.” She listed the items off on her fingers. “The art of war is a road of life and death of vital importance to the state. It cannot be neglected.”
“More ancient knowledge?”
She shook her head. “Some of my own. And you are avoiding the offer. What say you?”
Raleien considered for a moment. Did he really want to be used again? He looked down at his rough hands. They were scarred and calloused from decades of fighting and soldiering. Is this all he was capable of? Being used, fighting someone else’s battles, committing someone else’s crimes?
For now, yes. Serving another Empire was better than no purpose at all. He longed for the fight.
“Whom would I serve?” He finally asked after a long moment of contemplation.
It was the woman’s turn to sit back and consider her words. She seemed to stare off into the distance, her gaze loosening as her mind considered a response.
“I am somewhat uncertain of that, myself. The one who shows particular interest in you is dangerous, and a man of contradictions. Steeped in dark arts, but loyal to a fault. A great leader, but a sadistic fighter. Self-effacing, and yet a charismatic force of nature. He does not rule us, but he is second among us. He doesn’t seek glory, either. A good commander is benevolent and unconcerned with fame.”
He looked up again, meeting her intense brown eyes with his deep, golden gaze. “That is a Pantoran military proverb.”
She smiled. “I seek and treasure wisdom from all. And you avoid the question, again. What is your answer?”
Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one, he thought. A quote from his mother about serving the Republic. She had been a soldier, too. The proverb meant that it was better to seize opportunity that was imperfect than none at all. He could barely remember her face, but that sing-song voice and her regular quips were clear in his mind forever.
“I’ll consider it. Let’s go.”
Caelestis City, Seraph Moon of Ragnath, Caperion System
8 hours later…
“This is not what I was expecting.”
Raleien had seen large cities before. During his time as a TK-Trooper - as a Stormtrooper - he had served the Empire across the seemingly endless galaxy. From the bustling ecumenopolis of Coruscant to the distant expanse of backwater worlds in the Outer Rim, he had seen and done a considerable amount in his sixty-five years of living. About fifty of those years had been spent killing, but there was always time to make memories during the slaughter. You just had to live long enough to remember.
“What were you expecting?” Xiaying asked with genuine curiosity.
Raleien shot Xiaying a sideways glance, meeting the lithe woman’s amused brown eyes.
“Hutts or an underground lair. Something rough around the edges.”
Xiaying laughed. “It is best to win by persuasion and not by force.”
Raleien recognized and understood the context of the proverb immediately. It was another that originated from his homeland of Pantora. Uttered by a famous philosopher of the Old Republic era, the proverb was a reflection on power and rule. Ol’Tallin believed that ruling through economic prosperity rather than by the end of a blaster was best.
He grunted. So this so-called Clan sought to rule by the bank, did they? If Caelestis City was an indication of their success, they were doing just that.
“Still, I wasn’t expecting… this.” He gestured around him.
She nodded. “It is impressive,” she said proudly.
His surprise was not Caelestis City’s existence, but its grandeur, wealth, and advanced technology. It was a cosmopolitan megapolis of considerable beauty. A mixture of squared, thick ancient buildings seemed to be moulded into the delicate curvature and lively green spaces of the contemporary structures which had sprouted around them. Closer to the heart of the city and its bustling spaceport, soaring towers of gleaming glass and unblemished durasteel shot up into the cloudless cerulean sky, though all were dwarfed by the gargantuan presence of Adoniram Tower near the city’s centre.
But its sights weren’t all; the aromas and sounds of this unyielding urban centre were equally sophisticated. It made Ord Mantell City look like a dump by comparison. Among the crowds of multi-racial denizens of Caelestis City was the buzz of commerce. Shouts of bargaining, bouts of full-bellied laughter and the constant stream of multilingual conversation blended with the hum of traffic and the city’s utilities at work, while the wafting scents of the city’s blossoming living walls mixed with herbs, spices and other goods from across the galaxy. And below it all, there was an undertone of cleanliness. Not the pure smell of chemically treated streets, but the natural odour of seventy two million reasonably treated people living cheek by jowl in the massive city.
Xiaying had been observing Raleien as she led him northward through the Entertainment District toward Adroniam Tower. The Pantoran was used to such behaviour. At first glance he looked like nothing more than a brute. He had arms like tree trunks, a heaving chest, a face like gnarled vines and a girth which belied his lingering fitness. He knew he looked brainless. But Xiaying and Raleien had, when the man was willing to speak, debated philosophy, shared stories and proverbs, and had bonded on the short journey to Seraph from Ord Mantell. He often didn’t reveal his introspective intelligence. But Xiaying was perceptive, and eager to learn, and he found himself content to share what little wisdom he had accumulated over the years with an eager pupil.
The wisdom of a murderer, part of him thought.
He smothered the thought. Now was not the time for his guilt to rise up. He had to focus. After all, he was about to meet an Admiral.
“Bit off more than you could chew, soldier?” Xiaying asked, breaking Raleien’s moment of troubled introspection.
He shook his head. “No. No, I don’t think so. It’s just been a few years since I worked with an organization with resources.”
“From what I heard, you don’t need resources. One report claims that two years ago, during an operation in Hutt space, you managed to rally the remnants of a few mercenary companies in a ruined building and hold off an overwhelming force of soldiers and pirates.”
“That?” He asked, trying to hide his shock at the level of detail in her report. “No, it wasn’t quite like that. Definitely embellished.”
He remembered the day clearly. He had been one of the teams sent in to rob one of the Hutt outposts, similar to Dandoran. And like Dandoran so recently, something went wrong. Another team got caught early. The faint whizz of blaster fire grazed his face as the ten frozen hells broke loose. In what seemed like seconds, most of his team had been wiped out by a repeating blaster turret. One thing led to another and thirty odd mercenaries huddled together in a shattered building, holding an intersection and the doorways behind from everything that tried to kill them. He had placed them just so, hoping beyond hope his quick tactical assessment would hold true. Only twenty of them had survived, but by the gods he had lived.
“I see,” she said, unconvinced. “And the faction war on Sullust?”
The Loyalist shrugged. “I did my duty.”
He didn’t want to think about that bloody business.
“For credits,” she said flatly.
“Faithless are they that say farewell when the road darkens,” he said, quoting an old human proverb from Coruscant. The proverb spoke to the need to commit to single tasks to find success. That was Raleien’s way. “I commit to my work.”
“The work of war?”
“That’s all I know.”
“And that’s exactly why you’re here, Raleien Sonavarret.”
Xiaying and Raleien spun to face the source of the new voice. It was a powerful baritone that oozed with confidence and charisma. The voice belonged to a handsome human man of average height leaning against one of the nearby buildings on the wide boulevard they occupied…The man was fit, though nearing middle age. He had brown hair in a stylish spike at the front, and a welcoming face with distinct laugh lines.
Xiaying suddenly made a formal, if shallow bow to the man, arms erect at her side.
“Admiral,” she said, rising from the bow. “We were not expecting you here. I was escorting your new head of security to the Tower.”
The Admiral waved a hand indifferently. “I decided to change plans on the fly. I can’t sit staring at reports for hours. Is this our man?” He asked Xiaying, nodding to Raleien.
“This is he.”
The human man clapped his hands together and said, “Excellent! Well, I can brief him myself on our way back to the tower. You’ve accepted our offer?”
Raleien nodded, rolling with the shock of meeting the man he had been mentally preparing himself to face for the last few days.
“I signed the datapad and agreed to the contract. Close protection is one of my specialties.”
“One of many, so I gather. Good. As of this moment I’m promoting you to the rank of Captain in the Palatinae Legion. You will be assigned a squadron of the Praetorian Guard to serve under your command and as Adroniam Tower’s personal protection unit. And, oh yes, my name is Kamjin Lap’lamiz, though you may refer to me as sir, Admiral, or Mav.”
All at once? He doesn’t mess about, Raleien thought. I like it.
But then he considered the gravity of what just happened and looked around to see if anyone had eavesdropped. It was then that the old Pantoran saw what he had missed before. A small knot of open space had formed around the Grand Admiral and his two guests, and Raleien could pick out perfectly placed bystanders - or, he thought, bodyguards - standing and speaking casually in small groups which redirected the flow of people just far enough away that speaking openly was possible.
“Yes sir,” the newly christened Captain responded, saluting in the Imperial fashion.
Kamjin grinned. “You really are a veteran, then? Good. Well, let’s talk on the way and enjoy the sun before we’re back in the tower. Xiaying, join us.”
[Part 1 of 2]