A/N: A little plot sparked by a guildie's comment about Darth Avidior perhaps enjoying fine tea. XD This occurs after the game storyline proper. Since I haven't covered the actual name change yet -- "Avidior" is the name Eilan takes after being elevated to Darth.
Ephene was, to be truthful, a very minor world in the galaxy-wide picture. The primarily agrarian world had, perhaps wisely, declared themselves neutral in the current conflict, and since they had few resources of great value, both the Republic and Empire left them alone... mostly.
There were ambassadors from both governments in the capital city, Mazul, each one trying to convince the Ephenese of the wisdom of joining their faction, or at least prevent them from joining the other. It was a token effort, at best, and that suited Ambassador Mertoph Boll just fine. His Republic superiors rarely contacted him, so long as he sent in his weekly reports, and in the meantime, he enjoyed the hospitality of Mazul high society: the regional representatives of the global Assembly, the wealthy descendants of the first colonists (they held shares in the planet's gemstone and precious mineral mines), and various business moguls. While the majority of them cannily held their galactic political leanings close to their vests, they were not above currying the favor of an ambassador with a vast network of contacts.
Naturally, the same was true of the Imperial ambassador, Vrikas Haraeon, and the two of them were often in attendance at the same small gatherings. On other worlds, it might have been cause for friction, but for various reasons, it was no real problem on Ephene.
Of course, it helped that Mertoph and Vrikas had reached a private agreement of their own. In public they were coolly polite to one another, but their unofficial relations were more cordial. This afternoon chat was a perfect example: every so often—not regularly, in case others took note of the scheduling pattern—one of them would invite the other to his residence for tea and conversation. Today Vrikas was playing host, so Mertoph had come via two private speeders (one to take him to a fine dining establishment as a cover, and the other to pick him up from the back door and drive him here) and was making the short walk from the private shuttle pad to the garden terrace. The terrace was attractively kept, with a dense hedge all the way around and a well-established flowering vine of some sort covering the pergola overhead. It felt almost as enclosed as being indoors.
The garden seemed oddly quiet, and it took Mertoph some time to realize why: there were no workers about the place. Usually there was at least one groundskeeper pulling up weeds or trimming the hedges or some such thing. There was also, he noticed, no serving boy posted by the door leading from the house to the terrace. Does Vrikas have something particularly sensitive to discuss today? If that were the case, though, Mertoph would have expected to meet inside, where security could be more easily controlled...
Curious and a little wary, the ambassador entered the terrace through the flower-covered archway. There was a stranger sitting at the little wrought-desh table, facing the archway. His hair, the color of a glowing-hot coal, drew the eye immediately. Vrikas, his profile familiar and easily identifiable, sat across from him with his back to Mertoph.
"Ah, right on schedule," the stranger said with a friendly smile. "Come, join us, Ambassador Boll, the tea is still hot."
Mertoph felt a chill. The seemingly polite young man was dressed in full Sith armor, and either he had a peculiar fashion sense, or a Miraluka's eyeless face lay behind the elaborate metal visor he wore. A Miraluka Sith? part of him wondered, even as his mind tripped into full alert. What is happening here?
He found it odd that Vrikas didn't turn to greet him, but perhaps the Imperial ambassador didn't want to turn away from the Sith. Mertoph couldn't blame him; the man's presence here boded ill, and treating him with anything less than full respect would be foolish.
Attempting to hide his reluctance, Mertoph came to the table and seated himself in the space left open between Vrikas and the Sith. It was only then that he saw Vrikas's slack face, and the telltale small, singed circle through the breast of the ambassador's shirt. He let out an involuntary shout of horror and would have jumped out of his chair, but something held him down in his seat, as surely as if he'd been tied to it.
Is this... the Force? As a law-abiding Republic official, he'd never been subjected to the use of the Force against his person, but... what else would it be, invisibly holding him down in a durasteel grip?
He was breaking into a sweat, he knew, from pure terror. The Sith wouldn't dare kill him—he was an ambassador, on a neutral planet! But what did he want? Did he know? He must have, or why else would he have killed Vrikas?
For a moment, Mertoph wondered if Vrikas had been murdered here, sitting down to tea, or if it had happened elsewhere and the Sith had staged this horrifying tableau in time for Mertoph's arrival. He wasn't sure which seemed worse.
He stared at the Sith, who seemed to ignore him for the moment as he took a measured sip of tea. The man's black gauntlets, Mertoph noticed, were tipped in curved metal claws, but he seemed to have no particular problem handling the porcelain teacup.
"Hm. I suppose I can't fault Ambassador Haraeon's taste in tea, at least. This is quite fine. Local, isn't it?"
The Sith's tone was so pleasantly banal that Mertoph almost laughed at the incongruity of it. Unable to find words to reply, he merely nodded.
"Very nice. I'll have to acquire some before I leave." The man set the teacup down and leaned back in his chair, turning his full attention to Mertoph. "I suppose I should introduce myself. Darth Avidior at your service, Ambassador Boll," he said, rising to perform a slightly mocking bow.
A Darth? Here? Why would the Empire send someone of such high rank out here? Were they about to make a play for Ephene? "A pleasure to meet you," Mertoph managed to say, feeling anything but.
The Sith grinned broadly at the obvious lie. "I think I don't need to tell you that there will be a new Imperial ambassador very shortly," he said casually, nodding towards Vrikas's body.
"I... see." Mertoph had no desire to look at his colleague again; his stomach was already fluttering unpleasantly in apprehension as it was. "If I may inquire... why was Ambassador Haraeon, er, relieved of his post?"
Darth Avidior actually laughed. "If I must spell it out: he happily accepted your bribery in exchange for information on Imperial diplomatic movements. Treason is a capital offense in the Empire, Ambassador."
So the secret was out. For his own safety, the Republic would doubtless recall Mertoph to Coruscant. If he walked away from this encounter.
"I suppose you will be replaced here sooner than later," the Sith continued, echoing Mertoph's thoughts, "but I think your people might be forced to hasten the process." Avidior picked up a pastel-tinted biscuit from the serving tray and examined it, but set it down on his saucer without tasting it.
"I—but—I'm a Republic citizen, and this is a neutral world!" Mertoph said shrilly.
"For now." The Darth smirked knowingly. "I do wonder what the Ephenese will make of your slave trafficking. I'm fairly certain that the Republic takes a dim view on such things, however."
"I don't know what you mean," the ambassador protested weakly, swallowing bile. Bloody karking Sith, he knows!
"No? Let me jog your memory." Avidior tapped a comm at his ear, murmuring "bring them" to some unseen accomplice. A moment later, a half-dozen adolescents stepped out of the house, followed by a Chiss in the uniform of an Imperial Navy officer. The officer's pistol remained holstered at his hip, but the children seemed to obey him with alacrity nonetheless.
Mertoph had never seen them in person; he had only facilitated their purchase and transport to Vrikas's residence, one at a time over the past year or so. Beneath his current fear for his life, he felt a pang of shame. They're so young.
Four of the children were human: two girls and two boys, the latter of which Mertoph recalled were identical twins. The sole Mirialan in the group was a girl, and the last boy, wearing a finely made fabric mask over his eyes, was obviously a Miraluka. They all appeared to be barely through puberty, with slender frames that hinted at growth in the years to come, and their scant, but decorative, clothing gave a clear enough indication of what their purpose was. Ages of majority and consent varied throughout the galaxy, but compared to Vrikas's 50-odd years, they all seemed far too young.
"Of course, slavery is still legal in the Empire, so the late Ambassador Haraeon broke no laws of ours in simply owning them," Avidior said conversationally, "and what one does with one's own slaves is not subject to any law. But I personally find this… distasteful, don't you?"
Mertoph dared not answer. The Sith was clearly prepared to report this whole mess to the Republic authorities, and if he had some personal axe to grind about the issue, he was unlikely to accept some sort of concession to keep quiet.
"Find them some proper clothes," the Darth called to his subordinate, who nodded and ushered the boys back inside.
"What..." Mertoph's voice cracked and he started again. "What will happen to them?"
"Worried about your little investments?" For all of the lightness in Avidior's tone, there was venom in it, as well. "Haraeon made no dispensation for them in his will, and he has no heirs. They become Imperial property, but I am seeing them freed and transported elsewhere."
It was never wise to trust a Sith, but Mertoph believed him, if only because of how angry he seemed. He only nodded in reply.
"I do have to wonder... was this your idea, or was it suggested by your superiors?" The Miraluka took another sip of tea, seemingly waiting for an answer. Mertoph blanched, but he remained silent.
"Ah, well. I suppose it won't really matter; even if it was an order from higher up, they'll scrub the data trail and leave you hanging out to dry." The Sith regarded him with a nexu's predatory grin. "Diplomacy is such an ugly little game, really. I think that's why I enjoy it."
The invisible bindings that had kept Mertoph in his seat finally dissipated, and the ambassador leaped to his feet, backing away rapidly from the table and the monster sitting there calmly drinking expensive tea.
"Drive safely," Avidior called after him. "It would be quite unfortunate if you had an accident before you made it back to Coruscant."
Mertoph's stomach lurched, and this time there was no abating it; he scurried behind the hedge, outside of the terrace, and doubled over, retching. Was that last quip a threat? A warning? Or was the Sith simply trying to scare him even more?
Back on Coruscant he faced serious censure, perhaps even criminal conviction... but at least he'd be alive. Stomach still heaving, the ambassador slowly made his way back to the shuttle pad, forced to wonder now if he'd make it back to his residence, let alone Coruscant.