Authorís Note: Thanks to everyone who remembered the beginning of this series and is still reading, and of course many thanks to Ori for the beta and evil ideas.
"Ben?" Although Qui-Gon could tell his bonded wasnít in their rooms, he couldnít help the call, as if voicing the other manís name would bring him into existence. It had been a long two weeks of tense negotiations, but they had been successful, bringing an end to a bloody civil war on a newly industrialized planet.
He looked around the room, spotted a holo-pad on the table, and walked over to it, leaving his bag on the floor near the door. He keyed the pad and smiled, faint wrinkles creasing the tanned skin around his blue eyes, as an image of Ben popped into existence.
The miniature Ben drew himself up and looked into the recorder, his expression resolute, and Qui-Gon felt a tremor of worry. That expression didnít bode well for the news that would follow. "Qui-Gon, if youíre seeing this, Iím not back yet, and itís possible I may not be back.
"I received information about a group of slavers, and Iím going to check them out. Knight Chun is going along, apparently for some excitement; amusing, as I thought you Jedi didnít crave such things."
Qui-Gonís lips twisted into a small smile that vanished as Ben continued. "It would be easier if you were here to explain this to, but then youíd probably try to talk me out of going or come along yourself, and that isnít possible. No matter what happens, donít come after me, Jinn. If I donít come back, thereís no point in both of us being lost."
The image froze before dissolving to static and Qui-Gon groaned, bringing his hands up to rub his temples. "Damn it, Ben, you know I canít do that," he growled. He knew Ben was still aliveóthe bond between them made him sure of thatóand if Ben had been killed, well, he wouldnít survive that either, but as to where the other man had gone...
Ignoring his other messages, he walked to the wall and hit the communications switch. "Where is Padawan Bant?"
Looking nothing like the man who had left Coruscant and very much like the Champion of the Arena, Ben Keníba walked down the gangplank of his ship, noting the guards and their weaponry as well as the automatic armaments in the landing bay. He exuded confidence and looked honed and deadly, a trained killer dressed in black leather and matte silver, a pair of lightsabers on his left hip, a sword sheathed across his back, and a blaster holstered on his left thigh.
He eyed the guards with disdain, wrenching their guns from their hands with a twist of the Force and deflecting the single bolt of energy one of them got off with a barely seen sweep of his lightsaber. "Next one who moves, dies," he stated calmly, following up the threat with a bolt to the chest of a guard who made the mistake of reaching for a second weapon. "Now, children, if I was here to arrest you, would I do that?"
A nervous looking woman dressed in yellow, a color that did nothing to flatter her olive complexion, pushed through the guards, visibly composing herself when she stopped. "May I inquire as to what it is you want then?"
Ben smiled thinly. "I have a gift for your master. One he will find quite interesting."
"My lord is in negotiations for the rest of the day; perhaps you can give me the gift, and I will pass it on to him?"
"I think not; this is the kind of present that must be given in personóor would your lord decline the chance to acquire a fully trained Jedi?" Ben hooked his lightsaber back onto his belt as he spoke and ran his fingers over the hilt of the second weapon there.
"My lord is an honest businessman; I am not sure where you would get the impression that he might be interested in buying another being..."
"Any man who categorizes himself as Ďhonestí is generally anything but that. However, I do understand the need for security, so tell your lord that Ben Keníba of Golgatha would like to see him - when his busy schedule permits." He smiled sardonically at the last.
"Of course. I am Marcíya Vel; may I show you to quarters so that you may wait in comfort?"
Ben nodded. "Thank you; allow me to bring my present as well." He looked around the gathering, his eyes narrowed. "I would hate for anyone to damage my merchandise." Turning his back on the guards in a blatant display of disdain, Ben walked back into his ship, returning shortly with a bound and gagged Jedi knight following behind, unresisting except for the furious look in his dark eyes.
"Not you too!" Cratos cringed against the bulkhead near the entrance to his landing pad, his narrow eyes darting left and right as he looked for an escape route. "I told Ben everything I knew; whyís he sending you after me now?"
Qui-Gon loomed in over the smaller man, his blue eyes narrowed and his lips a thin line behind his short beard. "He didnít send me anywhere, but I do want to know what you told himóall of it."
Cratos whimpered and tried to squirm away to bolt for his ship, but Qui-Gonís fingers on his arm were like iron bands. "The Gedran system! He went there, trying to track down a slaver there; he thinks this was the guy who sold him to the Empress."
"Oh really? And why would he think this?"
"I donít know! Ow! Ow! All right, because I told him I thought this was the man. Now will you let me go?" Cratos drew himself up and glared at the Jedi, though fear haunted the depths of his eyes.
Qui-Gon remained silent, then shook his head slightly. "Actually, the two of us are going to take a small trip; I believe you have a ship stocked and ready to go?"
Cratos moaned and shook his head. "Take the ship, take everything on it, but Iím not going anywhere near that place again!"
"Yes, you are." Qui-Gon smiled benignly and rested a hand on Cratosí shoulder, turning him and leading him toward the door to the shipís platform. "And on the way there, youíre going to tell me everything you can remember about the place and the people."
"Kill you, lying scum! Knew it, should have never let you back in the Temple."
Ben looked away from the furious Jedi, his expression impassive, and offered his hostess a small shrug. "As you can see, Knight Chun is not yet accustomed to the idea of his new place in life."
"Are you sure you would rather not have him put into one of the holding cells?"
"No, I would rather he was here with me; thereís less chance of losing control of him." As he spoke, Ben studied the quarters he had been given, noting the hidden cameras and microphones that would record his every movement. He then glanced back at Bruck and offered a chilling smile as he mentally gagged him again. "Or of having him damage someone elseís property."
"As you wish, mílord. My master will be busy for the rest of today but wishes to invite you to breakfast with him in the morning."
"That is acceptable. I would also like to see more of your operations here if that is allowed."
She nodded, her braid of dark hair sliding over her shoulder to lie across her chest. "I would be happy to escort you around the station."
"You have my thanks, Lady Vel."
"Marcíya, please, mílord."
Ben smiled thinly. "Then you must call me Ben."
After renewing his Force-driven commands to Bruck and locking him in the inner room of his quarters, Ben followed his hostess through the station, quietly studying the visible and hidden defenses as he listened to her comments about the place and the people who inhabited it.
It was well run, Ben had to admit that; the workers knew their duties, and there were more than a few Force-sensitives around, many of whom gave him sharp looks as he passed with his guide.
There was no hint of the clandestine nature of the dealing that went on here, though a visit to the recreation area proved enlightening as the clientele wandering around the lushly appointed room were all obviously wealthy and, less obviously in some cases, had a hard edge to them.
"Would you care for some refreshment?" Marcíya asked, gesturing toward a droid behind a serving bar. "You will find our selection is quite thorough."
"No..." Ben began, then reconsidered. "Do you have an Arcturian red?"
The droid located a bottle and poured a glass of the deep red wine. "Will that be all, sir?"
"Just one more thing." Ben took his drink and drained half of it. "Stim-sticks; Iíd like a pack of them as well."
"I told you, Jinn! I donít know anything about the man other than he sold the Empress the majority of the slaves she used in the Arena."
"So you sent Ben off on this wild chase on no other basis than that?"
Cratos shrugged. "I didnít force him to go. He wanted information; I wanted my ship back. It was a simple exchange of services - until you turned up." He scowled at that and dug viciously into his meal.
"The fact that it is Benís business makes it my business also, little man," Qui-Gon answered calmly as he sipped his tea. "Weíre a day out of the system; I need more details."
"I only saw him once! I never even spoke to him!"
"But you did see him; think of that time."
"You arenít going to do any strange mind tricks on me, are you?" Cratos watched Qui-Gon warily, ready to bolt as far across the room as he could if necessary.
Qui-Gon shook his head. "No, I just want to see who you saw."
Cratos cursed and closed his eyes, his whole expression one of a man expecting a blow at any time. Qui-Gon reached out and touched his temple, and Cratosí repression relaxed, and he gave an almost dreamy smile.
"Just think of the man you saw," Qui-Gon urged, his own eyes closing as the image in the other manís mind grew clearer, features beginning to take shape and grow in definition.
"So, youíre the man who brought down the Empress of Golgatha; funny, I expected someone taller."
Ben smiled thinly at the attempt at humor though the expression didnít reach his eyes. "Iíve heard that many times," he answered, "though they say itís not how big you are, but what you do with it that counts."
The small crowd that had gathered around him burst into laughter. "And just what do you do with it?" a woman called lewdly, her slurred tone and her accent rendering the words hard to understand."
Ben turned his attention to her, his smile becoming more predatory. "Anything I want; Iíve lived my life by othersí rules long enough."
"I heard you were on Coruscant with the Jedi," another woman, this one more sober, interjected. "Thatís a long way from here."
"I was," Ben answered, "for as long as it served my purpose."
"I heard you brought a Jedi with you," a man broke in. "Is it for..." An elbow in the side from his companion caused the statement to be broken off.
"Youíll find out soon enough; itís one of the many things I have to speak to our host about."
"Is it true what they say about Jedi? That theyíre all virgins?"
Ben gave a rough laugh. "Hardly, though this one is."
A flurry of comments went through the crowd at this. "Male or female?" "What species?" "How old?"
The look of disgust that swept over Benís face at the deluge silenced the crowd except for some of the more intoxicated members. "If I come to an agreement with our host, youíll find out in time; until then, anyone attempting to get to my Jedi will find themselves dealing with me."
The crowd fell back a step, warily watching the leather-clad killer, fully believing the tales they had heard about him, and several flinched as he dipped a hand to his belt pouch, retrieving a package of stim-sticks and setting one between his teeth before crunching down on it.
Ben glanced over at Marcíya and nodded toward the door. "I believe Iíve had all the company I care to deal with for the evening, shall we continue the tour?"
Qui-Gon stared out the main observation window, watching the blinding white streaks of stars flash across the pitch black heavens. He had always loved space travel, the thrill of the unknown ahead, the feel of the Force singing through the vast expanses, the knowledge that he would do his best at whatever task he was given at each new place he visited. Now, however, all he saw was frigid emptiness, the same that enveloped his heart and soul.
The image Cratos had given him had shaken him to the very core of his being, and he could not say who he feared for more, himself or Ben. The truth would all come out now, and he could only pray that it would save his bonded and not damn him.
"Tread carefully, aíshera," he murmured, willing Ben to hear the words over the distance between them. "You have no idea who youíre dealing with."
"Lord Keníba, my master will see you now."
Inclining his head in thanks, Ben stood fluidly and crooked a finger at the still bound Jedi standing beside him. "Time to go, Knight Chun." He could feel Bruckís seething emotions, but the tight control he had over the white-haired man allowed none of it to show on his face.
He followed Marcíya into a room roughly twice the size of the receiving room where he had been waiting. The furniture was of a rough, almost primitive design, leather, wood and stone all combined to create a dangerous, almost uncomfortable beauty. Beaten metal sculptures hung on the walls, sculptures that looked as if they could be used as weapons if the need arose.
Behind a massive cut crystal desk, a black, high-back chair was turned away, facing the wide expanse of windows behind it. The barren white landscape of the planetís surface was a stark contrast to the officeís earthy decor, and something about the vista beyond the window struck a chord of memory deep within Ben.
"Champion Keníba, I understand you have something for me?" A man rose from the chair and stepped around the desk, illuminated from behind by the harsh glare of the suns on the snow outside.
He stepped away from the window, and Ben felt a clench of victory run through him. The other man was tall, at least as tall as Qui-Gon, with black hair caught in a multi-plaited braid that reached his waist. He had pale eyes and a beautiful face, but the thing that riveted Benís attention was the scar on his hostís right cheek: a broken circle burned into his otherwise perfect flesh.
"I am Xanatos, though I expect you know that and this place. Shall we do business?"
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