Ciutric IV's twin moons shone brightly down on Zannah's airspeeder as it zipped through the night sky. The evening's rain clouds were just beginning to build; they were still no more than wispy veils that simply tore apart as her vehicle ripped through them. On the ground below, still a few kilometers ahead, she could see the lights of Daplona's primary spaceport.
A light on the nav panel blinked a warning, indicating she was approaching the two-kilometer limit of restricted airspace that surrounded the port. Her hands moving with casual precision over the controls, she brought the speeder in for a landing at the section reserved for those wealthy enough to afford private hangars for their personal shuttles.
As the vehicle gently touched down on the pad located on the starport's perimeter, three men scurried out to meet her. The first, a valet, tended to her speeder, whisking it away toward the secure lot where it would be parked until she returned. The second man, a porter, loaded her luggage onto a small hoversled then waited patiently as the third man approached.
"Good evening, Mistress Omek," he greeted her.
From their first arrival on Ciutric, Zannah and Bane had worked hard to build up their identities as Allia and Sepp Omek. After nearly a decade, she was able to slip into the role of the wealthy import-export trader without even thinking about it.
"Chet," she said with a nod to the customs official as the young man handed her an official-looking form.
For the common masses, arrivals and departures at the Daplona spaceport were a long and arduous process. Because the world was built on commerce and trade, the government required copies of trip itineraries, verification of ship registration, and a host of forms and permits to be filled out before the port authority would clear a vessel, its contents, or its passengers. This frequently involved a thorough inspection of the ship's interior by customs personnel, with the official explanation being increased planetary security. However, everyone knew inspections were actually meant to discourage merchants from trying to transport undeclared merchandise in the hope of avoiding interstellar taxes and tariffs.
Fortunately, Zannah didn't have to worry about any of that. She simply signed the departure form and handed it back to Chet. One of the chief benefits of maintaining a private hangar at the port was the ability to come and go at will. In exchange for their substantial monthly hangar fees, the government kept its nose out of her and Bane's business:a bargain at nearly any price as far as she was concerned.
"You'll be taking your private shuttle, I assume."
"That's right," she replied. "The Victory over in hangar thirteen."
"I'll alert the control tower."
Chet gave a curt nod to the porter, who headed off with the hoversled in the direction of the hangar.
"Just a moment," the customs official said softly to Zannah, causing her to hang back.
"Heard some news I thought you might be interested in," he continued once the porter had disappeared around the corner. "Argel Tenn touched down a few days ago to meet with your brother."
Zannah had never met Argel, but she knew who he was and what he did. Over the past few years she had slowly been gathering information on all the members in Darth Bane's network of contacts; they could prove useful to her once she took over the Sith. She didn't know if Argel's arrival was relevant or not: Bane was always looking to acquire rare Sith manuscripts, and it could just be a coincidence. Nevertheless, she filed the knowledge away in case it should ever prove handy.
"Thanks for the update," she said, slipping Chet a fifty-credit chip before heading off toward her private hangar.
The porter was already there, waiting with her bags by the shuttle. Zannah punched in the security code, causing the boarding ramp to lower.
"Put everything in the back," she instructed, smiling and handing the porter a ten-credit chip.
"Right away, mistress," he replied, the tip disappearing instantly into a pocket somewhere on his uniform as he hustled to load her baggage.
Zannah kept the smile plastered on her face while he worked. She made a point of being friendly with everyone at the spaceport. She saw it as an investment in the future-the cultivation of a potential resource. The members of the Senate and other powerful individuals might shape galactic policy, but it was the bureaucrats, government officials, and various other low-level political functionaries who actually made things run:and they were so much easier to deal with than the political elite. A few kind words and a handful of small bribes, and Zannah could get anything she needed without attracting unwanted attention. Just as she had done with Chet.
This was one advantage she had over Bane. She knew she was attractive. Men in particular were drawn to her because of her looks; they wanted to help her, to please her. Zannah wasn't above encouraging them with a soft laugh or a subtle touch-it was a small price to pay to establish a relationship that might eventually prove useful. Her Master's appearance, on the other hand, would never inspire anything but fear in those who didn't know him.
Only once the porter was gone and she was alone in the cockpit of the vessel did she let the facade drop. Settling into the custom-molded seat, she punched in the navigation coordinates. Through the cockpit viewport she could see the Triumph, Bane's personal shuttle, in the adjacent hangar.
Like her own, it was a Cygnus Spaceworks Theta-class T-1 vessel: the latest, and most expensive, personal interplanetary transport shuttle available on the open market. Everything about their life here on Ciutric-the mansion, their clothes, even their social calendar was a part of their disguise. They surrounded themselves with luxury and material comforts; a far cry from the austere life they had lead during their years on Ambria.
There were times when Zannah missed the simplicity of those early days. Life on Ambria had been hard, but it had kept her strong. And she couldn't help but wonder if the lavish lifestyle here on Ciutric had made her-and Bane-soft.
The Victory's engines roared to life, and the shuttle rose up a few meters off the ground. Zannah piloted by instinct while her mind continued its train of thought.
Life was a constant struggle; the strong would survive and the weak would perish. That was the way of the universe, the natural order. It was the philosophy embraced by the Code of the Sith. But here on Ciutric it was easy to be lulled into a sense of peace.
Peace is a lie, there is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken.
Zannah understood that chains were not always made of iron and durasteel; they could sometimes be woven of expensive shimmersilk. The easy life they enjoyed on Ciutric was a trap as dangerous as any the Jedi could ever set for them.
She had continued her study and training even after Bane had moved them into their magnificent estate outside the city. But the sense of urgency and the threat of danger that had spurred her on during her early years had faded, replaced by the ennui of security and contentment.
It was time to stake her claim as Dark Lord of the Sith. She would already have challenged him by now, if not for two things.
The first was the tremor she had noticed in his left hand several months ago. He tried to hide it from her, but she noticed it more and more. She didn't know the cause of the tremor, but regardless, it was an obvious sign of his degenerating skills.
Perhaps too obvious. Bane was a master manipulator. Zannah couldn't dismiss the idea that he was faking it. What if the tremor was just a ruse meant to lure her into the confrontation before she was truly ready-one final test to see if the apprentice had learned the lesson of patience he had worked so hard to ingrain into her?
I will strike at a time of my choosing, Zannah vowed to herself. Not his.
But in order to make her move, she had to be ready with an apprentice of her own. Two there should be; no more, no less. One to embody the power, the other to crave it. The Rule of Two was inviolate. If she was going to seize the mantle of Master from Bane, she would need to find an apprentice. So far, despite her best efforts, she had failed to locate even a single potential candidate.
Bane had recognized her own potential when, as a young girl, she had killed the Jedi who had mistakenly slain her friend. Now she was going to investigate the mysterious death of another Jedi. Might she find her successor the same way Bane had found her?
But if she was thinking along these lines, it was a sure bet that Bane had thought of it, too. He was rarely caught unprepared or off guard. So:why would Bane send her on a mission that could end with her finding the individual who might become the next Sith apprentice? Did her Master want her to challenge him? Was he trying to help her? Or was he looking to replace her? Maybe he had decided she was unworthy of assuming his title. Maybe he was hoping this mission would provide him with someone new to train in the ways of the dark side, and he planned to cast her aside.
If that's true, Master, you might be surprised at how this ends. Underestimate me at your peril.
A beep from the nav screen notified her as the shuttle broke Ciutric's atmosphere. A few seconds later she felt the unmistakable surge as the ship made the leap into hyperspace.
Zannah eased her seat back and closed her eyes. There was no point in dwelling on all the possibilities of what Bane might or might not be thinking, or what his secret motivations for sending her on the mission might be. The web of his machinations could be too impossibly tangled to unweave.
But she knew one thing for sure: something was about to change. For twenty years she had served as his loyal apprentice, learning the ways of the Sith. Now her time as a pupil was about to end. Whatever the mission might bring, she had decided this would be the last time she answered to Darth Bane.