As the vessel began its landing procedures, Kul lifted a gloved hand to stave off the gust of air blown towards him by the force of the thrusters. He stood a respectful distance away from the craft, though deep down he wanted to be closer. Not for the thrill of being nearly blown away by the vessel’s engine systems, but for what was aboard the craft itself. Or whom was on the craft more like. The anticipation sent a shiver up his spine and he had to keep himself from taking another step towards the gangplank before it had finished descending. At his side two Massifs sat on their haunches, their reptilian gazes taking in the surroundings with extreme prejudice. Kul knew he was relatively safe here on his clan’s homeworld, but one could never be too careful, especially on his clan’s homeworld. Intrigue was just another tool in the clan’s mighty arsenal of weapons and tricks to maintain their power. Whomever forgot that usually ended up the newest supply of slave labor.
As his expected arrival began to make their way down the carrier’s ramp, he sent a mental nudge to his pets and they began to flank his sides as he made his way over. With a light spring to his step the Zabrak met the Togruta he’d been expecting halfway across the landing platform. Her smile at his presence lit up her face, and he once again knew what the Light side was likely made of.
“Tahiri. Welcome back.”
From behind her lithe figure a familiar mass of muscle and fur creeped around to make itself known, slightly nudging Kul with a huff. He reached down and rubbed the Akul’s thick head lovingly.
“No I did not forget about you, Solan. I’m glad to see you, as well.”
The Akul padded over and sniffed at the Massiffs before the trio suddenly ran off, chasing each other, the larger Akul bowling over one of them in its hurry.
Tahiri giggled at the sight before turning back to Kul. Feeling more relaxed now on her new homeworld, she let a sigh escape her lungs that told Kul everything he needed to know about her mission results. He lifted a hand and softly placed it against her cheek, which she leaned into and closed her eyes. He poured his reassurance into the gesture and let her enjoy the moment before he dropped his hand again and gazed into her sulfuric eyes.
“The Collective will fall, of that I promise you. If I have to tear their halls down myself.”
Grateful, but also not naive, Tahiri smiled and laid a hand on Kul’s shoulder as she began to walk towards the direction of the Aliso Monastery.
“Yes, I want them gone, Kul, but not at the expense of anything or anyone else I care about.”
The pointed look she threw back at him sobered his blood lust, so he nodded and began to follow. His long strides brought him beside her quickly, and he let the now hanging silence engulf the claps of the boots on the durasteel. He peered at her from his peripheral, but wasn’t sure how to broach the subject he wanted to speak with her about. Finally, as they entered the port’s main building, he decided that straightforward was likely the best approach. He cleared his throat.
“Tahiri, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something, but it’s never really been a great time, what with the Collective appearing and all. I know you’re probably tired, so rest up, but then there’s somebody I’d like you to meet.”
Intrigued, the Togruta glanced up at him with an eyebrow raised.
“Please tell me you don’t need me to witness at a behavioral hearing again, Kul. What have I told you about getting too rough at the Sand Pit?”
Kul snorted, but could not exactly fault her for going down that line of reasoning. He admitted to getting a bit too rambunctious when it came to the fight pits. He waved a hand defensively.
“No, no, nothing like that. It’s a bit hard to explain, but you’ll like her I think.”
Tahiri stopped walking abruptly and the other brow went up. Her voice did not raise, but he could sense the implied meaning well enough. The Togruta could be an incredibly implied scary when she wanted to.
If it had been possible, Kul’s face would have turned white as he blanched, cursing himself for his phrasing.
“Again, you’ll understand when you meet her. You have to trust me though, I can’t say too much where others might hear. When you get rested, contact me and we’ll meet at the Monastery.”
Boosting his stride, the Zabrak went off to corral his pets, yelling the rest behind him as he went.
“It’s good to see you back, though! You look ravishing today! See you later!”
Tahiri shook her head in exasperation. Sometimes she considered punching that Zabrak. She raised a hand to her cheek where he’d touched her and she smiled faintly.
Not today, though.
“What do you mean I’m not allowed to enter?”
Standing before the two door guards in the black, well-kept armor, Tahiri could hear Kul’s tone beginning to inch dangerously close to violence. Flanking his sides were his beloved Massifs, who, due to their deep connection with their master, reflected his rising temper with hackles raised.
The soldier whom the question was directed at looked to his superior on his right, who gave a short, stiff bow.
“Apologies, my lord, but the orders are from the Dread Lord himself. What with the unrest and all.”
“Hmph. As an agent of the Dreadlord I think I have the clearance to enter the slave quarters of all places.”
The guard paused before answering. He was quite aware of his orders, but also aware of the rumors that followed the Zabrak beastmaster. A delicate answer would be required, otherwise the situation might devolve into a period of extended hospital stay.
“Under normal circumstances you indeed would, my lord. The situation is currently under investigation so the Dread Lord has asked that only a select few directly involved be allowed to enter freely, lest suspicion fall on the wrong parties. The Summit appreciates your cooperation while this matter is resolved.”
The tension was palpable. Tahiri could feel the pressure as Kul’s annoyance built, his musculature swelling slightly as he instinctively drew on the Force. She laid a reassuring hand on his forearm.
“It’s ok, Kul, I don’t mind waiting. She’s probably aware about the situation and will understand if you can’t visit…” The Togruta spared a glance at the blast door, a confused look on her face. “…Though I don’t quite understand why she’s staying in there to begin with.”
It was phrased as a question, and its purpose succeeded as Kul’s anger left in the wake of the distraction.
“It was a training test. If she can survive the slave pens, then she can handle more difficult assignments. It might seem harsh, but it’s necessary for her to survive within Plagueis’ shadow politics. Her own strength and wit will keep her alive when I cannot be there.” He grinned before continuing, “She tends to sneak into places she’s not supposed to be, so I’d thought I’d at least teach her how to do it right.”
The Togruta tilted her head to one side.
“She must be quite skilled for you to take interest in her.”
Kul swept a hand over his skull, lightly grazing the tips of his vestigial horns. He paused momentarily and glanced at the blastdoor before them.
“Actually our meeting was pure happenstance. I encountered her during a standard recon mission. She’s a bit quirky, like most humans, but she’s clever in her own way.” He flicked open his wrist comlink and typed in a specific channel before resting his gaze back on the senior guard.
“You said no one but the specified few were allowed in, correct?”
The guard nodded sharply. “Yes, my lord.”
Kul’s face broke into toothless grin. He drew the comlink to his lips and spoke.
“Hiso, I’Sharee kep.”
Tahiri gave him a confused look as he closed his comlink and clasped his hands behind his back in a waiting pose.
“Was that Zabraki, Kul? I don’t recognize the phrase.”
His gaze now intently watching the door, the Zabrak just looked back at her and winked.
“Just give it a minute.”
Trusting his word, Tahiri shook her head and patiently waited. An awkward silence fell over the group as the guards became unsure if they should ask them to leave or satisfy their curiosity and see what they were waiting for. Solan the Akul lay resting behind his master while Kul’s Massifs changed stances, their senses picking up a familiar sound.
Tap, tap. Tap, tap-tap. Tap, tap.
The guards turned to face the blastdoor, and though their faces were covered it was clear they were unsure why such a sound would be coming from the other side of their post. Kul did however, and he approached the door. The guards considered drawing their weapons, but the Zabrak merely rested a knuckle upon the door and repeated the cadence from this side. After doing so he stepped back and rubbed his hands together.
“She should be coming any second now.” A moment passed. “Annnyyy second.”
When the door still did not open Kul frowned and gave a worried glance at the opening mechanism. He began to shift nervously and Tahiri thought he might be contemplating bashing the door down. She began to call out to him, but before she could the blastdoor whooshed open and a couple of bodies came careening out to either side of him. Already on edge, Kul’s reflexes kicked in and each hand caught a throat. Barely straining to lift the thin slaves, the Zabrak growled.
“Who are you and where is Reeka, mali?”
By this time the guards had actually drawn weapons and were debating at which party to point them at. Their attentions swiveled to the now opened doorway as a smaller slave came skipping out, long brown hair pulled to one side as the girl attempted to hide a small tool within it. She came to a sudden stop as she saw the scene unfolding and gave up on her hair, two tiny pale hands raised in defiance.
“Wait, Father! They’re with me.”
Tahiri glanced from the small human child to Kul. “Father?”
Kul ignored the question momentarily, still holding the slaves in an iron grip. Only his gaze weakened as it took in his adopted daughter.
“What do you mean they’re with you, little Reek?”
Reeka padded over, her bare feet slapping against the cold durasteel floor. She gazed up at the Zabrak, not an ounce of fear in her body. Tahiri had to stifle a laugh at the image of this tiny girl facing off with the much larger Kul.
She’s definitely acquired his recklessness.
“I meeeean that they said they wanted to get out. I told them that I was going to leave when you told me to, so I said I would ask if they could come, too.”
The slave in his left hand nodded vigorously. He was a another human, a lanky, middle-aged man with a scraggly beard. Unkempt hair shook as his head bobbed, a gesture that only forced his windpipes harder against Kul’s palms.
“Aye, she did, sirrah. Mighty kind of her, too. A right fine lassie you raised here’n.”
Kul flexed his wrist and the man stopped talking. In his other hand a Geonosian drone struggled vainly to pry open the Zabrak’s fingers, clicking erratically with its mandibles.
“So who’s this one, then?”
The scraggly man took this as directed towards him, and excitedly began speaking again.
“Oh that there’s Crackle. Or at least’n I call him Crackle. Don’t rightly know what his real name might be. What with the no speakin’ thing. But he helped me out on the inside so’s I thought I’d repay the favor. Good thing, too. They don’t treat the insect lookin’ fellers all too well in there. Must be something personal, I suppose.”
The senior guard cleared his throat, but wilted slightly as the Zabrak’s increasing aggravation was suddenly directed towards him.
“My, Lord. Apologies, but I’m going to have to ask you to return the workers to their designated areas. No one comes or goes without proper authorization.”
Kul felt his body heave as he let loose a suspiration. This whole scenario had gone completely backwards to how he’d planned it. Taking a step to his right so as to place Reeka out of the line fire, Kul inhaled deeply and then heaved one arm after the other and sent both slaves sailing unceremoniously back through the blastdoor. They landed in a small heap and made to get up, but Kul slammed a balled fist into the console and the door quickly snapped shut. As he turned the senior guard looked apprehensively towards Reeka, her attire marking her as one of the slaves.
“My lord. I must insist. All of them.”
Kul didn’t bother turning to face the soldier as he prodded his Massifs. They hunched down and snarled in unison, razor sharp teeth slathered in saliva, waiting for the command to kill.
“She comes with me. I insist.”
The two guards slowly let their blasters fall to their sides, their desire to escape the situation unharmed trumping their drive to perform their duty to its fullest. They took up their original positions and gave a brisk salute.
“As you wish, my lord.”
Tired of the whole situation already, Kul waved at Tahiri, who had chosen to remain silent through the last exchange. She imagined that the Summit would probably find out about this, but she knew such knowledge would not have changed Kul’s stubborn mind anyway. So, being the caring and loyal partner she was, she nodded and took up pace beside Kul and watched Reeka, who was busy attempting to climb on one of the Massifs. Kul gripped her by the slave’s collar around her neck and planted her back on her own two feet.
“That wasn’t how I imagined this going, to be honest, but Tahiri…I’d like you to meet Reeka.”
At the mention of her name, the young girl pranced around the Togruta woman and beamed up at her.
“Hi! I’m Reeka! Are you a friend of my father’s? Can I touch your lekku? I’ve seen lots of Twi’lek with some, but yours are different. Is this your pet? Can I RIDE him?”
Tahiri giggled as the energetic girl bounced around and tried to climb the Akul, who promptly turned and butted her off with his nose.
“Hello, Reeka, I’m Tahiri. Yes, I am a friend of your father’s.”
Reeka’s face scrunched up and she smiled impishly between Kul and Tahiri.
“So, do you like like him?”
Kul groaned and ran a hand over his face while Tahiri laughed.
“She’s cute, Kul. I like her.”
Kul watched as the tiny human zig-zagged through the Massifs while taunting the Akul, the only sign of her training being the constantly swiveling eyes and fingers flexing unconsciously from muscle memory. It would be easy to miss if one wasn’t looking for it. Sparing a glance back towards the way they had come, Kul could not help but feel like he had missed something. One of the things he had learned about Reeka was her sharp children’s intuition. Normally she would never go against his original orders, which in this case had been to survive and stay hidden, only leaving upon his command. He had not included any directives regarding the other slaves inside, so what had caused her to feel a connection with those two? Or yet a better question: why were some of the slaves exhibiting breaks in their brainwashing all of a sudden?
Tahiri, the ever watchful eye, noticed Kul’s glum features and leaned forward.
“I’m not sure. This slave situation may end up being bigger than I thought.”