Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER NINE

Paradise was anything but what it promised. The ironically named space station was located along a small hyperspace route branching off from the Corellian Trade Spine. Although technically under Republic jurisdiction, the quadrant was largely neglected by most major shipping corporations; it was known more for pirates and slavers than the transport of commercial goods. But, realizing that even criminals needed somewhere to spend their ill-gotten credits, a group of Muun investors had pooled their resources to create an orbital platform catering to a segment of Republic society shunned on more civilized worlds.

Lucia had been to Paradise more than enough times in her life. After her release from a Republic POW camp she had spent several years as a freelance bodyguard, and many of her clients had contracted her specifically to provide protection during their visits to the station. The jobs always paid well, but she only took them when there was nothing else available.

Though Paradise officially billed itself as a "full-service entertainment lounge," the reality of what transpired there was far more sordid than that innocuous term implied. Pleasure slaves, gambling, and illegal narcotics were available on hundreds of worlds and orbital platforms, most of them promoting themselves as hedonistic retreats for the rich and powerful-but generally law-abiding-citizens of the Republic. This was not the case with Paradise. The clientele here could best be described with a single word: scum.

Lucia's dislike of the station had been formed on her first visit, and each time she returned her opinion was further reinforced. As she made her way through the crowd at the Stolen Fortune-the largest of the six casinos on the station-she didn't see anything to change her mind.

Music was pumped in through overhead speakers, mingling with the general din rising up from the crowd. Humans, near-humans, and aliens all mingled freely, drinking, laughing, shouting, and tossing credits away on various games of chance. Pirates and slavers made up the bulk of the crowd, along with a few mercenaries, bounty hunters, and a handful of personal security personnel. Virtually everyone was armed. Pleasure slaves, both male and female, made the rounds offering drinks and other, more powerful indulgences for purchase. For the right price, anything could be bought on Paradise:even the pleasure slaves themselves.

The potential threat of sudden, lethal violence was an inevitable and generally accepted element of Paradise's culture. There were no security forces on board, and no official representative of Republic law had ever set foot on the station-not openly, at any rate. Autotargeting blasters mounted in the ceiling could be used as an extreme method of crowd control if anyone ever attacked the casino staff, but when it came to individual safety, patrons were expected to fend for themselves. Those able to afford the expense typically hired an entourage of bodyguards, but the average visitor had to rely on a prominently displayed blaster at the hip and the threat of retribution from friends to make others think twice about starting something.

Lucia didn't have any friends with her on this trip, but she had been here enough to know how to avoid trouble. She carried herself with an air of confidence, an unspoken challenge in the set of her shoulders and the tilt of her head that dissuaded others from approaching her. Besides, most of the conflicts started near the gaming tables, and Lucia wasn't here to gamble.

She was here because the princess had sent her to find the Iktotchi assassin known as the Huntress. The last time Lucia had come here she had also been looking for the Huntress, though that had been her decision, not Serra's.

At the time, Lucia hadn't known about the king's arrangement with the Jedi. She never suspected the assassin would kill Medd Tandar and set off a diplomatic incident. Yet even if she had, she would still have come for Serra's sake.

She had seen her mistress grieving for her husband. His death had torn a hole in the princess's heart, and after two months with no signs of improvement, Lucia couldn't bear to watch her friend suffer any longer without doing something.

The princess needed closure; she needed to see those responsible pay for their crimes. But though the king had sent his troops in search of Gelba and her followers, they had made no progress in tracking her down. And so Lucia had taken matters into her own hands.

Going behind the king's back to hire an assassin was a clear breach of Doan law and a direct violation of the oath she had taken when she was sworn into the Royal Guard. But this went beyond any oath or vow. Serra was her friend, and her friend had been wronged. She couldn't bring her husband back, but she could see that those responsible for his death were punished. That was what you did as a friend: you put the needs of each other above everything else. You were loyal to your own.

That was the reason Lucia had joined Kaan's armies in the New Sith Wars twenty years ago. She didn't care one way or the other about the dark side, or the Sith, or even destroying the Republic. She had been a young woman with no family or friends. No prospects. No future. When the Sith recruiter came to her world, he offered her something nobody else had: a chance to be part of something greater than herself; a chance to belong.

She had found that sense of belonging during her time as a sniper with the Gloom Walkers. The other members of the unit became like her family. She would have given her life to save anyone of them, and she knew they would have done the same. And if she couldn't save someone, she would do the next best thing and honor their memory by avenging their death.

That's what happened with Des. Although Lieutenant Ulabore was the official commander of the Gloom Walkers, everyone knew Sergeant Dessel was the real leader of the squad. A miner from Apatros, he had been a giant of a man: two meters tall and 120 kilograms of pure muscle, with an instinct for battle and a knack for keeping his fellow soldiers alive in impossible situations. Des had risked his own life to save the unit more times than Lucia could even remember.

Thinking back on what had happened to Des still filled her with anger. While stationed on Phaseera, the Gloom Walkers had been given orders to attack a heavily fortified Republic installation before sundown:a suicide mission that would have seen the entire unit get slaughtered. When Des suggested to the lieutenant that they wait until after nightfall, Ulabore had refused to listen. The kriffing coward would have sacrificed them all rather than tell his superiors that they were making a mistake.

Unwilling to march his friends into certain death, Des took charge of the situation. He knocked Ulabore out and took command of the unit, changing the plan so they would strike under cover of darkness. The mission turned out to be a complete success: the enemy forces were wiped out with minimal casualties, securing a major victory for the Sith war effort.

Des should have been hailed as a hero for his actions. Instead, Ulabore had him arrested and court-martialed for insubordination. Lucia could still remember the military police leading Des away in cuffs. She would have shot Ulabore right then and there if Des hadn't seen her slowly raising her weapon and shaken his head. He knew there was nothing anyone could do to save him; there were too many MPs around, all with weapons drawn. Anyone trying to help Des would be killed, and he would still end up getting court-martialed. Even as he was being led away to face certain execution, Des was still looking out for his friends.

Lucia never saw Des again; never heard what happened to him, although she could easily guess. Insubordination was a capital offense, and the Sith weren't known for leniency. But though she couldn't save him, she could still do something to repay him.

It took almost a month before she got the chance, but she wasn't about to forget. It came during a skirmish against Republic troops on Alaris Prime. The Gloom Walkers were on patrol when they stumbled into an ambush-something that never would have happened if Des had still been with them. But their sergeant had taught them well, and even without him the Gloom Walkers were still one of the best units in the Sith army. The encounter only lasted a few minutes before the Republic soldiers broke ranks and fled.

The intense, close-quarters fighting resulted in several casualties on both sides. Among them was Lieutenant Ulabore. His status was officially registered as killed in action, and nobody in the Gloom Walkers ever bothered to report that he had been shot in the back from point-blank range.

There were some who might consider her a bad person for what she had done, but Lucia never regretted her decision. To her, it was simple. Des was her friend. Ulabore was responsible for his death. It had been the same with Serra. The princess was her friend. Her husband was dead. Gelba was responsible. It was all about loyalty.

And so Lucia had made the trip to Paradise. A few discreet inquiries, along with significant sums of credits changing hands, led her to the Huntress. Two weeks later, Gelba was dead. Now Serra wanted her to hire the assassin again:though Lucia had no idea why.

Something had happened to Serra during their visit to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. She had seen something upsetting, something she hadn't wanted to talk about. Lucia knew there were secrets in the princess's past, but she had always respected her right to privacy. After all, there were things in her own past she didn't want people poking their noses into, either.

Yet even though she had agreed to help, she was worried about her mistress. Serra was basically a kind and gentle person, but there was another side to her as well. She had nightmares, and sometimes she would go into dark depressions. Lucia suspected she had been scarred by some traumatic event in her childhood-a memory so intense, it had damaged her in a deep and fundamental way.

The sight of the Huntress seated at one of the viewing tables near the edge of the casino refocused her thoughts on the task at hand. The Stolen Fortune, like all the casinos on Paradise, overlooked the arena built at the center of the orbital platform. Through the large transparisteel windows patrons could watch combatants-typically beasts or slaves-fight to the death.

While it was common for bettors to wager on the outcome of each battle, Lucia realized that couldn't be the case with the Huntress. Iktotchi were rumored to have telepathic and precognitive powers, and as a result they were barred from gambling at virtually every casino in the galaxy. Lucia realized she had to be enjoying it purely for the brutality of the kill.

The Huntress was seated in the farthest corner, her back to one wall. She was dressed in the same black cloak she had worn during their previous encounter. Her heavy hood was thrown back to reveal the horns that curled down to her shoulders, framing her sharp features.

Lucia could only see her in profile, the black tattoos tracing down from her lips hidden by the angle and the shadows in the corner. From this perspective there was something striking about the red-skinned Iktotchi, a grace and elegance she had never noticed before.

She could have been beautiful, she thought with some surprise. But she chose to turn herself into a demon.

The Huntress glanced up as she approached, and Lucia froze-fixed in place by her piercing yellow eyes.

"I've been expecting you," the Iktotchi said, her voice barely audible over the music and crowd.

"Expecting me?" Lucia replied, too stunned to say anything else. Maybe she really could read minds and see the future.

"There was collateral damage during my mission on your world," the Huntress explained. "The Jedi. I expect your mistress was displeased."

Lucia shook her head. "That's not why I'm here."

"Good. Because I don't give refunds."

"I want to hire you again."

The Iktotchi tilted her head, considering for a second before nodding. Lucia took a seat at the table across from her. Out of the corner of her eye she could see into the arena, where two monstrosities covered in fur and blood tore at each other with claws, tusks, and teeth. One appeared to be an Endorian boarwolf; the other was some type of three-headed canine abomination.

"A terbeast," the Huntress explained, though whether she read Lucia's mind or simply the confusion on her face wasn't clear.

Lucia turned her head away in disgust.

"You have other rebels you want me to eliminate?" the assassin guessed.

"No." At least I don't think so. "My mistress wishes to meet with you in person. On a world called Ambria."

The assassin's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why Ambria?"

"I don't know," Lucia answered honestly. "She wouldn't tell me. She only said she wants to meet you there, alone. She is willing to pay triple your normal rate."

She slid a datapad across the table. "Here is the location."

Lucia was certain she would refuse. It sounded too much like a trap. But the Huntress simply sat back in her chair and didn't speak for a very long time. She almost seemed to slip into some type of trance.

Waiting patiently, Lucia did her best to ignore the bloody show playing out in the arena. She didn't approve of killing for sport or pleasure-it seemed pointless and cruel. Despite her refusal to watch, a roar from the tables along the viewing windows told her the match had ended; one of the animals must have dealt a fatal wound to the other. Instinctively, she turned her head to see the result and was greeted with the sight of the terbeast's three heads burrowing into the torn belly of the boarwolf in a race to feast on its organs.

She turned away quickly, struggling to control her rising gorge.

"Tell your mistress I accept her offer," the Huntress said, reaching out to seize the datapad with the thick, stubby fingers that were common to her species.

Their business done, the assassin turned her attention back to the arena, the hint of a smile playing across her painted lips as she watched.

Disgusted, Lucia stood up and gave a curt nod before turning to go, eager to leave the station as quickly as possible. The Huntress, seemingly enraptured by the gruesome spectacle below, didn't seem to notice her departure.