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Gestahlt
12.31.2011 , 08:33 AM | #4
Chapter Four: The Business

Waking from her sleep the second time around did not fill Verra with the same dread that it had the first. She gave a cursory glance about her surroundings and found that they had not changed. The sun still streamed in through the window and the gentle breeze played against her features. Whatever salve had been applied to her body before was changed during the night, and from that came a renewed strength to her battered body. She may not have been in optimal condition yet, but she felt leagues better than she had at first. An unusual scent met her nose and caused her stomach to growl. Warily she sat up and turned her head toward the door. As was true the day before, she found the exotic female alien watching her.

“It is good to see you awake once more,” she said with the same level of bemusement that she had shown before. Verra’s mind, still drifting away from the unconscious, found it difficult to focus upon her words. She studied the woman yet again, attempting to discern any threat that she may have presented, but where once the intentions of another blossomed before her like a freshly bloomed flower, now there was only silence. The neural implants were a nightmare that she would have never imagined.

The woman rose from her position by the door, her grace a subtle yet magnificent sight to behold. With the elegance and poise of a classically trained dancer, she moved with studied refinement from the door toward the side of the bed. A scarf of blue fluttered behind her, wrapped delicately about her neck. Verra reacted by flinching slightly, but she answered her unspoken concern with a smile both kind and reassuring. “Please, madam, do not be frightened. I only seek to make your stay more comfortable.”

Other than genuine concern and earnest compassion, Verra felt nothing upon the woman. While the Jedi were trained to be perceptive at all times, the mixture of her injuries and ignorance to the culture of the woman before her worked well to prevent her from being able to deduce more than that which she presented to her. The woman’s near-floating steps were brought to an end when she placed her hand to tray on the wall, which slid from its position over to Verra. The scent that had before been intriguing was introduced to her then with a much more pungent aroma; it was thick yet surprisingly appealing.

“I hope that you will accept what small favors we have to offer,” the woman said with a humble edge added to her silky voice. “Though I am of little talent, I have presented you with the apex of my culinary abilities.”

There was no denying that the dish had an exquisite scent, but Verra was not so intoxicated by it that she was incapable of thinking. She sat up a bit more in the bed, her body protesting the motion only vaguely. In her sleep, she had repaired a bit more and her ribs no longer felt as though shattered. Placing her curiosity to the fore, she spoke in a dry voice. “What is it?”

“Ba’jiin-ara,” the woman said, pronouncing each syllable crisply and carefully to the point that Verra could see her doing the same to a child. Although it might have seemed condescending, the good-natured smile that she offered following was in no way offensive. “I believe that in Basic it would be called: Fish-Meat-Spiced-Stew? While the fish and meat may be the most appealing part of the name, I assure you that it is the broth which all of the effort and care goes into.”

Broth sounded very, very good at that moment. Anything that wasn’t an empty stomach sounded good! But simply because the smiling woman was being nice to her did not mean she could trust her. Verra looked toward the bowl once more, noting its brown contents with dashes of red to indicate spices, before returning her eyes to the woman. “Perhaps I will eat later.”

“It will be kept warm until you are ready to accept it,” she answered without offense. She began to turn then, but the sound of Verra clearing her throat caused her to pause in her motion. She tilted her head in her direction. “Was there something else you required, madam?”

“Please, don’t call me that,” Verra said with a sigh rising through her body. Ban Garus’ dedication to being cordial had been unsettling enough; she did not want to suffer the humiliation of being waited on hand and foot by one of his servants. “My name is Verra.”

“On Thorne,” the woman began as she turned to face Verra once more, “a servant is not expected to refer to an honored guest by their given name. While I shall call you by your name if you command it, I would much rather speak of your position as our guest than appear a brazen and uncultured woman.”

Just as when she had explained the name of the dish, the servant adopted a charitable and dignified level of understanding in her explanation. Verra knew that it would be untoward to force her into calling her something she did not like. “Is there perhaps a local term that you have for the position, then?”

Paurneux,” the woman pronounced, the ‘eux’ carrying the same sound as an ‘oh’. “The Master would be a Paurnausta,” she went on to explain. “If you would like, I would not mind referring you to by the native word.”

“I’d much prefer Paurneux.” Verra’s attempt at stating the word was clumsy, but she managed each syllable with enough familiarity that she supposed it could be understood. From the manner in which the woman beside her smiled, it seemed to have worked. Mildly self-conscious, she quickly attempted to change the venue of discourse. “I’m sorry, but I do not know your name.”

“Q’leeta,” the servant answered. Upon stating the “Q”, her tongue all but clicked, while the rest came out in a near sing-song rolling of her tongue. “If there is anything you require, please do not hesitate to call upon me.” She performed a courteous bow then, her hands flowing out to the side as a majestic bird might spread it wings, before her torso dipped forth. It was a visually pleasing sight, drawing upon the woman’s natural grace. Verra had to assume that even if all of her people were graceful, Q’leeta was particularly pulchritudinous. Something told her that Ban Garus would not settle for anything less.

Q’leeta rose from her bow and turned about, excusing herself toward the door. Verra thought to let her leave, as the smell of the stew was by then all but overpowering her senses. She reached for it with the Force, but was reminded that she could not will it to her. Irritation blossoming inside of her, she lowered her hand and shook her head. “Please, do not leave.”

“Paurneux?” Q’leeta asked as she turned on the very utterance. “Is there something more than I might do for you?”

Verra did not know what to answer. Frustrated at being held captive, but hardly desiring to be left alone for the moment, she glanced to her hand curled the fingers into a fist. If she was ever going to escape she would need information and the servant at hand had to have more than she did. She looked back up and indicated the chair with a nod. “Would you mind sitting with me for a moment?”

“It would be both an honor and a pleasure,” Q’leeta replied. She turned to her side and extended her hand toward the chair that she had previously been sitting within. While Verra could not even summon up the strength to move a spoon, the servant willed the chair across the floor to her and sat down with as much poise as one could imagine. She places her hands to her knees and noted the look of disappointment on Verra’s face. “I apologize, Paurneux. If you would prefer, I will not manipulate the Force before you.”

“I would rather your master not prevent me from using it at all,” she said charily. The steady, unmoving smile that Q’leeta offered in response to the comment spoke as to how much she would say in that regard. “Forgive me, I… simply am without an old friend. Your ability of the Force seems superb; I take it your master has taught you?”

“We Haurnians are all naturally gifted with what you refer to as the Force,” Q’leeta explained. “The Master has shown me various ways to hone my abilities, but he does not consider me an apprentice.”

“More the boon for you,” Verra remarked. “He seems unwilling to sacrifice his servants, but would gladly do so with his apprentice. Did you know him?”

Q’leeta paused in her speech then and blinked her eyes once. Although Verra was uncertain, she had a feeling this was the way in which Haurnians showed hesitation. “The Master’s apprentice?” She finally asked, her voice as pleasing as ever. “Yes, I knew him.”

“What was he like?” Verra asked.

As before, Q’leeta’s comfort seemed to wane when she spoke of the topic. “He was a human, like you.”

While she knew there was more to learn on the topic, Verra did not push it further. With the Force she would have been able to tell how close Q’leeta was to shutting herself off from her. With her eyes, she simply had to play it safe and hope that intuition paid off. She placed her hands to the tray and swung it into place before her. The rich smell was too much to avoid any longer. “You said your people are Haurnians? I must admit I have never heard of them. Do you hail from Thorne IV?”

“No,” Q’leeta answered with a shake of her head. “We Haurnians – or Haur’nii in our native language – are from a planet nearby: Haur. The former indigenous people of Thorne IV, the Vi’aegris, held a small empire that encompassed several planets near our system. They were a cruel and brutish people that did everything they could to oppress and demean their conquered subjects. Men of the Haur’nii are an extremely rare sight in this day and age, as they were killed off so that we women would be more receptive to Vi’aegrian advances.”

The implications of Q’leeta’s words were not lost upon Verra, who looked up from her meal with genuine empathy. Though Q’leeta seemed to notice the look, she gave little more than a smile in response. “What became of the Vi’ageris?”

“When the Sith arrived, they were forced into extinction. Too proud to capitulate, they left the Sith no choice but to systematically behead them. The Emperor offered the remnants of their former empire a place within the Sith Empire, and we accepted. Now, many Haur’nii women can be found throughout this region – although I am unsure if our beauty translates well to your kind, many value us as prized possessions.”

It was a tale not so uncommon that Verra disbelieved it, but she was nevertheless unsettled by the various means of conquest that had been explained. The Haur’nii women were no doubt forced into a life that they could never escape, where the advances of men were met with expected acceptance. Verra’s stomach turned, but she fought to keep her revulsion from her face. This, without a doubt, would be the means by which she saw through Ban Garus’ stately façade.

“Do you not blame the Sith for what they have done – it seems to me they have simply supplanted your past oppressors with their own reign,” Verra offered. She was quite aware that when addressing structural integrity that Q’leeta was prone to pull into herself, but as she chanced a glance at the woman she found that she was surprisingly devoid any apprehension.

A laugh, soft and near musical, escaped the servant in a short burst. “Not at all, Paurneux. The Sith Empire liberated us from cruel and oppressive masters; would we not be uncharitable to look at their offer for protection as anything other than a godsend?”

To hear the words “Sith” and “liberator” together made Verra feel perturbed. “But as you have said, the Sith exploit you in a manner not much different than that of the Vi’aegris.”

“I do not believe I said that, Paurneux. I believe you inferred it,” Q’leeta corrected, inoffensively. “To that point, while there are Sith masters that are cruel… there are others that are very kind and gentle. Is it not the way of your Republic to annex newly freed systems into your grasp, so that they do not come to harm from outside forces?”

It was a simplistic view of things that Verra knew she could challenge, but ultimately it would be more a game of deception than honesty. The Republic did protect the majority of the known galaxy by impressing itself upon its people – not at all a sign of tyranny, but nevertheless vaguely similar to that which the Haurnian had explained. “Allowing that,” Verra began, “we certainly do not place class structures upon races.”

“Caste systems are something common within this system – the Sith simply replaced the old masters with the new ones. It was not that the Vi’aegris were superior to us that caused we Haur’nii to detest them, it was that they treated us with such impertinence. We are a people born to please others; that those graces were abused was reason enough to disparage.”

“And the Sith are any better?” Verra asked, her voice nearly as hot as the soup she had yet to touch.

Q’leeta offered a demure shrug of her shoulders, a gesture that rolled with the same smooth eloquence as her voice. “Some are,” she repeated. “And some are not. I have learned to concern myself primarily with those that deal directly with me. Living through the Vi’aegris occupation taught me that, if nothing else.”

The last bit of information was spoken with relatively little concern. If the Vi’aegris were as cold and unfeeling as Q’leeta had stated, she would have expected more emotion from her. “You say that with such dispassion. How long ago was their reign?”

“By your galactic standard years?” Q’leeta asked, the question near rhetorical. She looked to her fingers then and began to count down. When finally the mental math was completed she looked back to Verra. “Nearly three-hundred years ago.”

Three-Hundred! The thought had only manifested itself within Verra’s mind before Q’leeta gave her a teasing chuckle.

“In truth, I am a bit older than that as well. As I said, I lived through their occupation.”

“How long do your people live for?”

“Some have lived to be well over six-hundred years old,” Q’leeta said with a bit of uncertainty. “I suppose that if that is the higher end of our life expectancy, then I am nearing middle age. A terrible thought to have, is it not?”

There was a level of glibness to the woman’s voice that caused Verra to smile. It was a horrible thing to think that the woman did not understand how much freedom she did not have, but by the same token she seemed to be completely happy with her position. Verra considered tasting her stew, but just as her hand began to move she placed it back down and looked back to the Haurnian.

“You said that Haur’nii women are a prized possession of the Sith?”

“Indeed, we are.”

“Then does having one make you extremely important?”

Q’leeta smiled once more, though this time the expression was more knowing than it had been previously. “You are wondering whether or not the Master is an important man within Sith society.” Verra offered her a neutral glance, which encouraged her to go on. “The Master is a man of much influence. When the Vi’aegris were deposed, he was named viceroy of Thorne IV.”

Her captor was the leader of the planet she was sent to investigate? While she may not have been able to feel the Force, she was certain that it was working in collusion with her goals! “Then this is a palace?”

“No,” Q’leeta corrected. “As I said, that was some three-hundred years ago. In that span of time, men fall in and out of favor. The Master made several lasting changes that have ingratiated the people of Thorne IV to him, but he too made decisions that lost him the support of his peers.”

Intrigue, always the best tool to use when one could. Verra did not doubt that the Council would be greatly pleased to learn of the planet’s inner workings, and although she had been sent to retrieve Master Zi’los that bit of information could not at all hurt her cause. “And which actions did he make that ensured he would lose power?”

“Chief amongst them was his decision to marry a woman of lower caste than he,” Q’leeta said, her naturally glowing eyes becoming just a bit brighter. Though she could hardly believe what she was going to say, she knew that the answer would be to the affirmative.

“You?”

“Indeed,” Q’leeta said with what Verra was certain was subtle, yet deep-rooted pride. “I begged him not to do it, but he would not listen.”

“Because you knew a Sith could not love you?”

“Of course not,” the servant answered almost defensively. “It was because I knew his feelings were genuine that he was not thinking logically. Politics, no matter the system, are a brutal and terrible gambit to play. The Master sought to make a lasting change – in his eyes, the birth of a person mattered little. It was what they did from that point on that decided their fates. For a people that value power over anything, one would assume that this message would find a good seat in their hearts, but… there are many that feared their birthrights would be lost.”

“And so they turned against him.”

“Several times,” Q’leeta said with little attempt to conceal her sorrow. “It was after the third assassination attempt that I convinced him to step down from his position and wait for the Empire to become more understanding of his cause. I know that he would rather fight them, but I believe it was his love for me that kept him from doing so.”

Verra felt horrified – no, disgusted by the fact that as she listened to the tale Ban Garus was becoming a noble person. She did not doubt that in some perverse way he was finagling some move for power through his acts, but they had nevertheless uplifted women such as Q’leeta to positions of respect. She had seen the necrosis of his flesh; felt the corruption upon him. How could a man so blighted be capable of charity?

“If he is your husband, why do you refer to him as master? Why has he not made you lady of the house rather than kept you as a servant to wait upon the needs of his prisoners?”

“I would not say that you are a prisoner,” Q’leeta protested with little effort. “You are a guest.”

“A guest that has not the choice to leave seems more a prisoner to me.”

“Are patients in a hospital prisoners simply because they cannot leave until they are healed?”

The exchange ended in a way most unexpected – Q’leeta had once more maneuvered her point to the fore and left Verra incapable of formulating an appropriate answer. She hated being outsmarted, yet though a denial formed on her tongue she knew that it was be frivolous at best. The woman was simply a natural conversationalist and there was little to nothing that Verra could do to compensate for that gift. “Nevertheless, my point remains.”

“I am relatively ignorant,” Q’leeta began, “but I do believe you Jedi refer to people you honor as ‘Master’, do you not?”

“That is hardly the same thing,” Verra argued. “We do not marry our masters.”

“Never?” Q’leeta questioned as she tilted her head. Her hair, silken tresses of azure, fell over one of her eyes and intensified the innocence of her question. It was an effect not at all lost upon Verra, who felt herself suddenly uneasy. To alleviate that feeling, Q’leeta lifted her left hand and brushed her bangs aside. “If we were to remove the word ‘marriage’ from it and simply addressed what married people do, would it be more accurate?”

It took Verra not a second to parse the meaning from that, and her cheeks flushed all too readily. That was a topic that very few Jedi approached, although all knew the answer to it. As sentient beings there were definite needs that had to be taken care of for protection of one’s mental health, yet to speak of it was to break an unsaid contract. “We do not do those things,” she lied.

“I find that hard to believe, Paurneux,” Q’leeta said with a muted purr as she sat back within her chair. “You are a very beautiful woman, if I may say so. That your masters would not notice seems a dishonest characteristic for them to display.” When Verra did not immediately respond Q’leeta took all that she needed to from the subject, yet as her purpose did not seem to be to unsettle Verra, she relented. “But, as I said, I am ignorant of the Jedi. If you’ve control enough to avoid those urges, then I commend you.”

“Thank you,” Verra said with much less conviction than she had spoken with previously. She lifted the fork that had been set aside for her and weighed it in her hand. It could easily become a weapon, but there was no target to attack with it. Q’leeta was an extremely kind woman and something told her that a man who survived three assassination attempts would not be foolish enough to enter her personal space.

But there was something else that she could do; something so sinister that she was horrified by the very implication that she would consider it in the first place.

There was no doubt that Ban Garus loved Q’leeta – or that he felt her utility far exceeded that of others. He had stepped down from office to protect her and furthermore had been willing to sacrifice his life to keep her close to him. A woman with that kind of influence over the man had a utility in another way; she was the key to his heart. How likely would the Sith be to barter with her for information on Master Zi’los if she placed the fork to his beloved’s neck and threatened to end her if he did not comply with her demands? Overpowering the woman would be no simple task, as for all of her elegance and grace there was an undeniable strength to her features, but it would be a better plan of action than doing nothing at all. She twisted the fork in her hand and glanced back to Q’leeta, who looked to her with her ever bemused smile.

The scarf that was wound about the woman’s neck did well to intensify the look of elegance that came with it. Elongated and delicate as the rest of the woman, only the mild indentations of her native musculature could be denoted through the silken fabric she wore. She was unsure of the exact anatomy of the Haur’nii woman, but something told her that if she went for her head then the mess on her hands would be too much to conceal. It had to be her neck; though the Force may have abandoned her, her thirst for survival had not. One single poke and the woman’s life fluids would gush all over her. One single poke and she’d be freed.

But then, there was that smile. Ban Garus’ smile had been something of studied patience, if it could be considered a smile at all. Q’leeta on the other hand expressed nothing short of a muted desire tempered in her general hospitality. While the fork may have done well to silence the woman if need be, it would undoubtedly also forever quiet that smile. That intriguing, magnificent smile.

Carefully, the fork was placed back down.

It had been a dark moment; something that she would have never considered were she not at her wit’s end for how to escape. Working with the Sith was a plan that he wanted and would undoubtedly harm her, yet she could not break her own code of ethics for a small and meager gain. Barely legal or not, Q’leeta had been a kind and generous person to her. Though it frustrated her, she could not be rough with her. She felt physically ill for even considering using her as a hostage.

“Are you alright?” The Haurnian asked as she placed her hand upon Verra’s bed. “You seem… distraught.”

“I am held on an enemy planet,” Verra answered shortly. Although Q’leeta’s company was greatly appreciated, she would not allow herself to forget that fact. “Would you not be distraught?” When Q’leeta offered her an understanding nod, Verra lifted her fork again and dipped it into the soup. Its consistency was indeed closer to stew, although there was enough fluidity to the broth to enable the force to slide through it easily. Plump and succulent meat floated to the prongs of her fork. “When I am ‘healed’ as you have said it, do you honestly believe that your master will allow me to leave?”

“If that is what you wish,” Q’leeta said, dubiously. “But I do not believe that you will wish to part so soon.”

The inclusion caused Verra’s eyebrows to furrow. “And why do you think I would want to remain here?”

“Because whatever it is that you are here for, it is something that the Master is also interested in,” Q’leeta professed with complete self-assuredness. “He is not a man who acts without thought; your goals are similar and it would benefit you to learn from him as he will surely learn from you.”

It was an honest answer and there was no reason to doubt the woman’s candor. If everything that Q’leeta had said was true, which at the moment she was quite uncertain of, then Ban Garus was not a man to act without reason. He had sacrificed his apprentice to see her saved; surely, there was more on his mind than whatever curiosity he claimed to have with her.

The future was as murky as the contents of the bowl, it seemed. Verra lifted her fork, now laden with the meats, and slid it past her lips. The chunks of meat, engorged and full, occupied her mouth to a point that she felt she would be incapable of chewing. Yet her stomach, whose needs had been denied for far too long, bade her to do so and swallow. The explosion of flavor that met her taste buds as unlike any she had ever experienced before. Spicy and hot as it was, there was an underlying zest that simply exploded all over her tongue.

“You’ve lied to me,” Verra managed as she set the fork down. Q’leeta’s face betrayed earnest confusion, to which the Jedi answered by smiling meekly. “You are an excellent cook.”

Perhaps the future’s murkiness would not be so bad, either.