Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER THREE

The cantina was almost empty at this time of day; the crowds wouldn't start arriving until the late evening. Which was exactly why Darth Bane had arranged this meeting for early afternoon.

His contact-a balding, slightly overweight man of about fifty named Argel Tenn-was already there, seated at a private booth in the back of the establishment. Nobody paid any special attention to the Dark Lord as he crossed the room; everyone here, including Argel, knew him only as Sepp Omek, one of the many wealthy merchants who lived on Ciutric.

Bane sat down in the seat across the table from the other man and summoned a waitress with a discreet wave of his hand. She came over and took their order, then slipped away to leave them to their business. On Ciutric it was common for merchants to make deals in the backs of bars and clubs, and the serving staff knew how to respect the confidentiality of their customers.

"How come we never meet at your estate?" Argel said by way of greeting. "I hear you have one of the best-stocked wine cellars on the planet."

"I'd rather not have my sister learn about our transactions," Bane replied.

Argel chuckled slightly. "I understand completely."

He stopped speaking while the waitress returned and set their drinks on the table, then continued in a quieter voice once she was gone.

"Many of my clients are reluctant to let friends and family know of their interest in the dark side."

Dealing with Argel always left a sour taste in Bane's mouth, but for this there was no one else he could turn to. The portly dealer was the sector's leading procurer of banned Sith manuscripts; he had built a small fortune by discreetly seeking them out, purchasing them, and delivering them in person to his clients while keeping their names from ever being linked to the transaction.

Of course most of his clients were nothing but collectors or Sith fetishists who simply longed to possess a work that had been officially banned by the Jedi Council. They had no real understanding of the dark side or its power. They bought and sold the manuscripts in blissful ignorance, unaware of what they were truly dealing with.

This, more than anything, was what brought the bile to Bane's throat each time he met with Argel. The man portrayed himself as an expert in the dark side. He bartered and traded the secrets of the ancient Sith like cheap rugs at an open-air bazaar. It galled Bane to think of what treasures had passed through his hands into the possession of those too weak and common to ever make use of them.

He had occasionally fantasized about revealing his true identity to Argel, just to see his terrified reaction. Bane wanted to watch him grovel, begging for mercy at the feet of a real Sith. But petty revenge against an insignificant speck of a man was beneath him. Argel was useful, and so Bane would continue to play the part of a Sith-obsessed merchant.

"I hope you were able to find what I was looking for," he muttered. "The details you provided were rather vague."

"I promise you this, Sepp," the other man replied with a cunning smile. "You will not be disappointed.

"But you have no idea how hard this was," Argel added, throwing in an exaggerated sigh. "What you're after is illegal. Banned by the Jedi Council."

"Everything you deal in is banned by the Jedi Council."

"This was different. I'd never even heard the name Darth Andeddu before. None of my suppliers had. I had to go outside the normal channels. But I came through, like I always do in the end."

Bane scowled. "I trust you were careful. I wouldn't want word of this to make its way back to the Jedi."

Argel laughed. "What's the matter, Sepp? Some of your business practices not quite on the up-and-up? Afraid the Council will come after you for cheating on your taxes?"

"Something like that."

"Don't worry, nobody will ever know you were involved. I only brought it up because I may have to renegotiate our original price."

"We had a deal."

"Now, now-you know my initial quote is only an estimate," Argel reminded him. "I had to outlay triple my normal expenses to track this particular item down.

"But I'm willing to give you a bargain and only charge you double my original offer."

Bane gritted his teeth, knowing his hopes of a quick end to their conversation would remain unfulfilled. He had the funds to simply pay, of course. But this would arouse suspicion. He had a role to play: that of a savvy merchant. If he didn't negotiate down to the last credit, it would seem strange.

"I'll give you a ten percent bonus. Nothing more."

For the next twenty minutes they haggled back and forth, finally settling on 40 percent above the starting price.

"A pleasure doing business with you, as always," Argel said once payment was agreed upon.

From inside his vest he produced a long, thin tube roughly thirty centimeters long. The tube was sealed at one end, and the other was capped with a tightly screwed-on lid.

"If the item proves unsatisfactory," he noted as he handed it over, "I will be happy to take it back and return your funds:less a reasonable commission of course."

"I highly doubt that will be necessary," Bane replied as he wrapped his fingers tightly around the tube.

With the transaction complete there was no point in staying at the cantina. Bane was eager to open his prize, but he resisted until he was safely back inside the privacy of the library annex on his personal estate. There, beneath the pale glow of the lonely overhead light, he carefully unscrewed the lid. He tipped the tube, allowing the single sheaf of paper rolled up inside to slide out.

His instructions to Argel had been simple: be on the lookout for any book, volume, tome, manuscript, or scroll that made mention of a Sith Lord named Darth Andeddu. He couldn't say any more than that for fear of raising suspicions or awkward questions, but he had hoped it would be enough.

For two months his supplier had turned up nothing. But then, just as Bane was beginning to fear the Jedi had successfully buried all trace of Andeddu and his secrets, Argel had delivered.

The scroll was yellow with age, and Bane gingerly unfurled the dry, cracked page. As he did so, he marveled at the long and untraceable chain of events that had allowed the scroll to not only survive across the millennia, but eventually make its way into his hands. He had chosen to seek the scroll out, yet on some level he felt his choice had been preordained. The scroll was part of the Sith legacy; a legacy that by all rights now belonged to Bane. It was almost as if he had been destined to find it. It was as inevitable as the dark side's eventual triumph over the light.

The page had been fashioned from the cured skin of an animal he couldn't identify. On one side, it was rough and covered with dark splotches. The other side had been bleached and scraped smooth before being covered with handwritten lines in a language Bane immediately recognized.

The letters were sharp and angular, aggressive and fierce in their design; the alphabet of the original Sith, a long-extinct species that ruled Korriban nearly one hundred thousand years ago.

That didn't mean the document was that old, of course. It only meant that whoever wrote it had revered and respected the Sith culture enough to adapt their language as their own.

Bane began to read the words, struggling with the archaic tongue. As Argel had promised, he was not disappointed with the contents. The scroll was a religious proclamation declaring Darth Andeddu the Immortal and Eternal King over the entire world of Prakith. To commemorate the momentous event, the proclamation continued, a great temple would be built in his honor. Satisfied, Bane carefully rolled the scroll up and slid it back into the protective tube. Despite being only a few paragraphs scrawled across a single sheet of parchment, it had given him what he needed.

Andeddu's followers had built a temple in his honor on the Deep Core world of Prakith. There was no doubt in Bane's mind that this was where he would find the Dark Lord's Holocron. Unfortunately, he had to think of a way to acquire it that wouldn't raise Zannah's suspicions.

Andeddu's Holocron offered the promise of immortality; with it he could live long enough to find and train a new successor. It was Unlikely his current apprentice would know the significance of the Holocron, but he wasn't willing to take that chance. Though she was loath to challenge him directly, if she learned that he planned to replace her Bane had no doubt she would do everything in her power to stop him.

He couldn't allow the fear of being replaced to become the catalyst that compelled Zannah to finally challenge him. Fighting back simply because she knew she was about to be cast aside was nothing but a common survival instinct. His successors would need to do more than just survive if the Sith were ever to grow powerful enough to destroy the Jedi. Zannah's challenge had to come from her own initiative, not as a reaction to something he did. Otherwise, it was worthless.

This was the complex paradox of the Master-apprentice relationship, and it had put Bane into an untenable position. He couldn't send Zannah after the Holocron, and if he went after it himself she would almost certainly suspect something. He rarely traveled offworld anymore; any journey would immediately put her on her guard. She might try to follow him, or prepare some type of trap to be sprung on his return.

Even though she had disappointed Bane by not challenging him, Zannah was still a dangerous and formidable opponent. It was possible she might defeat him, leaving the Sith with a leader who lacked the necessary drive and ambition. Her complacency would infect the Order; eventually it would wither and die.

He couldn't allow that to happen. Which meant he had to find something to occupy Zannah's attention while he made the long and arduous journey into the Deep Core.

Fortunately, he had already had something in mind.

* * *

Bane's personal study-unlike the secluded private library tucked in the back corner of the estate-was a buzzing hive of endless electronic activity. Even when unoccupied, the room was illuminated by the flickering images of HoloNet news feeds, the glow of data screens showing stock tickers from a dozen different planetary exchanges, or blinking readouts on the monitors indicating private communications filtering in from the network of informants he and Zannah had assembled over the years.

For all the opulence and extravagance throughout the mansion, more credits had been spent on this room than any other. With all the terminals, holoprojectors, and screens, it looked more like the communications hub of a busy starport than a den in a private residence. Yet the study was no grandiose display of wealth; rather, it was a testament to efficiency and practicality. Every single piece of equipment had been carefully chosen to handle the staggering volume of data passing through the room: thousands of data units every hour, all recorded and stored for later review and analysis.

The study helped reinforce the illusion that he and Zannah were wealthy entrepreneurs obsessively scouring news from the farthest reaches of the galaxy in search of profitable business ventures. To some degree, this was even true. Every credit spent on the study was an investment that would eventually payoff a hundredfold. Over the past decade, Bane had used the information he had gathered to grow his wealth significantly¬:though for the Dark Lord material riches were only a means to an end.

He understood that power came from knowledge, and his vast fortune had allowed him to assemble the priceless collection of ancient Sith teachings he kept secured in his private library. Yet he was interested in more than just the forgotten secrets of the dark side. From the halls of the Republic Senate to the tribal councils of the most back-rocket planets on the Outer Rim, the lifeblood of government was information. History was shaped by individuals who understood that information, properly exploited and controlled, could defeat any army.

Bane had seen proof of this firsthand. The Brotherhood of Darkness was destroyed not by the Jedi and their Army of Light, but by the carefully laid plans of a single man. Ancient scrolls and manuscripts could unlock the secrets of the dark side, but to bring down the Jedi and the Republic, Bane first had to know everything about his enemies. The network of agents and go-betweens he had assembled over the years were a key part of his plan, but they weren't enough. Individuals were fallible; their reports were biased or incomplete.

Whenever possible, Bane preferred to rely on pure data plucked from the web of information that wove itself through every planet of the Republic. He needed to be aware of every detail of every plan put forth by the Senate and the Jedi Council. If he ever hoped to shape and manipulate galactic events to bring about the downfall of the Republic, he had to know what they were doing now and anticipate what they would do next.

The complexity of his machinations required constant attention. He had to react to unexpected changes as they happened, altering his long-term plans to keep them on course. More important, he needed to seize upon unexpected opportunities as they arose, using them to their fullest advantage. Like the situation on Doan.

Bane had never paid this small mining world on the Outer Rim much attention before. That had changed three days ago when he noticed an expense claim submitted to the Senate for approval by a representative acting on behalf of the Doan royal family.

It wasn't unusual for Bane to be reviewing Senate budget reports. By law, all financial documentation filed through official Republic channels was available for public viewing:for a price, of course. The cost was high, and typically all it resulted in was an onerous list of customs regulations, taxes levied in accordance with economic treaties, or funding appeals for various projects and special-interest groups. Occasionally, however, something of true significance would filter through the clutter. In this case, it was a line-item request for the reimbursement of costs incurred by the Doan royal family to transport the body of a Cerean Jedi named Medd Tandar back to Coruscant.

There were no further details; budget reports were rarely interested in the why. Bane, however, was very interested. What was a Jedi Knight doing on Doan? More importantly, how had he died?

Ever since first seeing the report, Bane had been mining his sources to try to find the answers. He had to tread carefully where the Jedi were concerned; for the Sith to survive they had to remain hidden in the shadows. But through a long chain of bureaucrats, household servants, and paid informants, he had assembled enough facts to realize the situation was worthy of more thorough investigation.

And so he had sent for Zannah.

Seated behind the desk at the center of the screens and holoprojectors, he could hear her coming down the hall, the hard heels of her boots clacking against the floor with each stride. Resting on the left side of the desk was a data disk containing all the information he had compiled on Medd Tandar and his visit to Doan. He reached out for it without thinking and froze. For a brief instant his hand hovered in the air, trembling involuntarily. Then he quickly snatched it back, hiding it beneath the edge of the desk just as Zannah entered the room.

"You sent for me, Lord Bane?"

She made no acknowledgment of the tremor, yet Bane was certain it had not gone unnoticed. Was she playing him for a fool? Pretending not to see his weakness in the hope he would become careless and let his guard down? Or was she silently gloating while she bided her time, waiting for the dark side to simply rot his body away?

Zannah was only ten years younger than Bane, but if the dark side was extracting a similar physical toll on her it had yet to show itself. Unlike her Master, she had never been infested with the orbalisks. It would still be many decades before the corruption of the dark side caused her body to wither.

Her curly golden hair was still long and lustrous, her skin still smooth and perfect. Of average height, she had the figure of a gymnast: lean, lithe, and strong. She wore fitted black pants and a sleeveless red vest embroidered with silver, an outfit that was both stylish by current Ciutric standards and practical, in that it would not hinder movement.

The handle of her twin-bladed lightsaber hung from her hip; over the past few years she had never come into her Master's presence without it. The hooked handle of Bane's own weapon was clipped to the belt of his breeches:it would have been foolish to leave himself unarmed and vulnerable before the apprentice who had sworn to one day kill him.

I'm still waiting for that day, Bane thought. Out loud he said, "I need you to make a trip to the Outer Rim. A planet called Doan, where a Jedi was murdered three standard days ago."

"Anyone powerful enough to kill a Jedi is worthy of our attention," Zannah admitted. "Do we know who is responsible?"

"That is what you need to find out."

Zannah nodded, her eyes narrowing as she processed the information. "What was a Jedi doing on an insignificant planet in the Outer Rim?"

"That is something else you need to find out."

"The Jedi will send one of their own to investigate," she noted.

"Not right away," Bane assured her. "The Doan royal family is calling in political favors to delay the investigation. They've sent a representative to meet with the Jedi Council on Coruscant instead."

"The royal family must be rich; those kinds of favors don't come cheap. Small world, but not widely known yet with wealthy royals. Valuable resources? Mining?" she guessed.

Zannah had always been able to grasp bits of information and put them together into something meaningful. She would have been a worthy successor, if only she had possessed the ambition to seize the Sith throne.

"The planet's been carved down nearly to the core. There are only a few habitable kilometers of land left on the surface; all food has to be shipped in. Most of the population live and work in the strip mines."

"Sounds charming," she muttered, before adding, "I'll leave tonight."

Bane nodded, dismissing her. Only after she was gone did he dare to place his still-quivering hand back on top of the desk.

The death of a Jedi was always of interest to him, but in truth he cared about finding Andeddu's Holocron far more than he did about the outcome of Zannah's mission.

Fortunately, the incident on Doan offered the perfect distraction. Investigating the Outer Rim world would keep his apprentice occupied while he braved the dangerous hyperspace routes into the Core to retrieve the Holocron. If things went as he hoped, he would be back long before she returned to give him her report, with Zannah none the wiser.

Confident in his plan, Bane focused all his concentration on calming the tremor that still gripped his hand. But for all his power, for all his mental discipline, the muscles continued to twitch involuntarily. In frustration, he balled up his fist and slammed it once hard upon the surface of the desk, leaving a faint impression in the soft wood.