Zeva fought to keep her gorge from rising. Even the service corridors on the Gilded Reeksa were strewn with the Vigo’s idea of tasteful trappings. I was brought up to believe, she thought, that nobody truly owns anything. This woman’s arrogance, her insistence on displaying her wealth so… so grandiosely…
“You okay there, Housekeeping?” Bella Nox walked along her right-hand side, the icy blue of her eyes darkened with concern as they flicked from her datapad to Zeva and back. Bella’s free hand rested on one blaster pistol’s butt; the Cathar was just as uncomfortable as Zeva.
“That is your job on the ship, right? Housekeeping?”
“Yes, but I have a name.”
“Good for you, kid.” Bella paused at a T intersection, then turned toward port. “Should be just up here.”
Zeva quickened her pace to keep up. “Have I offended you in some way, Bella?”
“No. Kind of. Not really. It’s complicated. Hold on.” Stopping at a secured door, Bella ran a short length of cable from her datapad to the access panel. “Keep an eye out while I slice this.”
“Complicated how?” Zeva’s focus on the mission had slipped. “I know I haven’t talked much with you, but I’m… shy around new people.”
Bella paused long enough to give Zeva a look. “Nah, I get that. It’s weird, but I get it.”
“How is that weird?”
The slicer paused, glanced up at the Jedi. “You don’t flirt with me.”
“Of course I don’t.”
“What do you mean, ‘Of course I don’t?’ Everybody flirts with me.” Bella flashed her carnivorous smile. “I’m everybody’s type. I’m a delight.”
“I’m spoken for.” Spoken for? There must be a better way to put it than that. It’s not like I’ve had much time to think about it…
“So what? It’s just flirting, Housekeeping. It doesn’t have to mean anything.” Bella turned her attention back to the lock. “Besides, if you practice with me, maybe you can keep up with Kay. She’s one of the best flirts I’ve ever seen.”
Zeva gave this a moment’s thought. “Will you feel less offended if I flirt with you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe? That isn’t what vexes me about you, though.”
“Oh? What is it, then?”
“Complicated. Like I said.” The door slid open, allowing the Cathar to enter the server room two steps in front of the Jedi.
Zeva had seen her share of computer rooms in her day, but never one so vast – rows of machines as far as the eye could see, each one powerful enough to manage an entire planet. This is it, she reminded herself. This is the hub of Black Sun’s entire intelligence network. If we can just -
Bella was on the move again. “Wait up!” Zeva hissed, following the slicer through the twisty maze of machines. “How is it complicated?”
She nearly bumped into Bella, who had stopped inches away from a hulking apelike being from a species Zeva didn’t recognize. “What are you two doing in here?” it – he – bellowed, blaster pistol suddenly at the ready.
All right. Bella’s good at talking to people. Not as good as Kay, but who is? Let’s see what she’s got before we resort to anything secret.
“The music stopped playing over the lounge PA,” Bella said brightly. “The Vigo sent us down here to reset the system.”
The simian leaned down to sniff at Bella, swallowing up what little light fell on her. “You don’t work for the Vigo.”
“No, sir. But she does like my taste in music!” Bella held up the datapad, which now displayed a roster of jatz songs that were ancient when Zeva was still a Padawan. A nostalgic thrill panged the Jedi’s heart as she spotted the song she and Kay had danced to at Corellia’s Winter Palace. “And the party’s dying up there! Just let me kick the flow back on, and we’ll be out of your way in two ticks.” A low purr, nearly inaudible, had crept into Bella’s voice at the end, and Zeva recognized a pulse of attraction for the Cathar somewhere in her belly.
But the simian raised his communicator. Zeva’s shock baton flew like a bullet and discharged as it struck his neck, the comm slipping from his grasp. He shook his head to regain his bearings, but by then Zeva had rolled between Bella’s legs and sprung to her feet, her ready fist rising up to catch the simian under the chin and send him to the deck, unconscious.
The Jedi collected her weapon, tucked her hair back behind her ear, and turned to see the bewilderment on Bella’s face. “See, that’s what vexes me,” the Cathar said before stepping over the fallen guard and parking in front of a terminal. “Keep an eye out, if you will?” She connected her pad to the access point and got to work.
“Bella, I —”
“I know you’re no maid. Well, you aren’t just a maid. Silent Destiny is the cleanest tramp freighter I’ve ever set foot on. Still, I’ve never seen anyone who can fight like you.”
Zeva tried to stretch out with her feelings, to sense if anyone else was nearby, but found it impossible to center herself. “It’s hard to explain,” she managed.
“I should just let it go, I know. But I can’t.” She looked at Zeva and sharply smiled. “Nothing is worse than a question I can’t answer.”
“Or shouldn’t,” Zeva said, hoping it sounded more like a warning than a threat.
“Maybe so, yeah. Zeva Milaska is a well-sliced fiction, don’t get me wrong. I doubt I could do any better, myself. But she doesn’t exist before the Sidori Star Cluster.” Bella’s smile disappeared. “And before that, I can’t find anything about you on the HoloNet. Anywhere.”
“You’ve been trying to find out about me?” A slight tremble started in Zeva’s knees.
Bella nodded. “I vet everybody I work with. I am a professional… except when I’m not.” She gave Zeva a wink, and went back to her work. “The truth is, I’m afraid of you, Housekeeping. The closest thing I can find that maps to you is the Emperor’s Hand… but I can’t come up with a good reason for the Emperor’s secret Force-ly operative to pal around with Kes and her crew.”
Zeva’s thoughts went to Darth Vader, then to Möbius Vyle, the would-be secret Sith apprentice she’d dueled back on Almengotti. “How many ‘Force-ly’ servants does the Emperor have?”
“I’m not an Imperial agent.” Zeva stepped around the fallen guard and moved within reach of the slicer.
“What are you, then?”
“To you? An ally.” She placed a hand on Bella’s shoulder. “And a friend, if I can trust you.”
Smirking, Bella said, “That sounds pretty dangerous. I barely trust me.”
“I’ve seen how you look at the Captain,” Zeva said before she could stop herself. “If you stick around after this business is behind us, I want to… make an effort.”
She felt Bella relax beneath her fingers, if only slightly. “All right. Making an effort. I can do that, too. And, maybe someday, you’ll trust me enough to tell me who you are.”
“The truth is pretty unbelievable.”
“Isn’t it always?” Bella’s smile always gave Zeva the impression that she was dwelling on a secret that only she knew. “I know you wouldn’t believe me if I told you about the last time I was on Nar Shaddaa. You see, Savit and I were—”
“How much longer will it take you to upload the virus?”
“Oh, that? I finished five minutes ago.” That damnable smirk, again. “But, here we are getting to know each other. I didn’t want to put that off any longer. But I know you don’t want to keep your girlfriend waiting. Come on, Zeva; let’s get back upstairs.”