Chapter Nineteen

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Three hours later Gaylen sipped his first beer in two weeks. This was no time to be dulling one's wits, but he could get away with one, damn it. He would indulge himself once the job was over with. When there was more to celebrate than just having survived.

The Round Ground was a decent little drinking spot, located at the centre of one of the station's squares. At the centre of its designated floor space was a little bed of dirt from which a tree grew. It was a relatively cheap and effective way to add a bit of charm and class to the place, and keeping his back to it saved Gaylen from having to look over his shoulder all the time. Anyone who came at him would have to do so through his field of vision.

But there had been no trouble so far, and he was free to simply enjoy the display of people.

His closest neighbour in the Ground Round was a tall, stooped Rylokian, looking stick-thin in their wide robe, and sipping something with the aid of a straw stuck through the front of a face-obscuring breath mask. Further out were spread sales booths, wherever people could fit them, and many had no particular theme in their wares.

A group of people, their clothes covered with fringes, was slowly growing in size as folks arrived in ones or twos. They were too far away for Gaylen to catch a word of what was being said, but he recognised the body language of people either expecting or looking to start trouble. And so did several other people around, whether manning sales booths or buying from them. Business was clearly taking a gradual hit as people's instincts steered them away from it all, yet no one intervened.

Then there was the environment itself. The 'square' was in fact a large shaft, stretching up four floors, with people milling about on the balconies. The businesses and services visible up above were no more glamorous or classy than those below, but the empty space itself was far better formed than much of the rest of the station, with an eye for aesthetics, hinting at this place's distant past. A main street split the whole thing apart, serving as a canyon of sorts.

"Hello?" Herdis said through the comm. "No emergency here; we were just wondering if anyone else is near the... the Kvat... Kvathanthan Section."

"I'm in the square," he said. "At the bar."

"Do you mind if me and Ayna join you for a bit?"

"No, come right over."

He slowed his sipping down as he waited for them, and noted the slow but steady buildup of tension over by that particular group.

Quiet never lasts, does it?

Gaylen was pleased with himself for immediately picking up the two women as they entered the square. They were walking arm-in-arm like dear friends; the Dwyyk's brand of charisma had had two weeks to work on the crew, after all. Herdis was still gazing this way and that as she'd predicted, while Ayna kept alert even while not being too obvious about it.

They bought a drink each and joined him.

"There you are," Ayna said, and folded herself into a chair. "Admiral."

"Please don't call me that," Gaylen said, but smiled. "So what do you two think of the place?"

"It's a... wilder version of Ruuk," Herdis said. She really seemed to be enjoying herself. "There is a lot to see."

"I haven't been here before either," Ayna said. "So we thought we'd stroll around together. I felt our newbie traveller here could use some adult guidance."

"And I felt our child mascot here..." Herdis patted Ayna's alabaster head, "... could use the protection of a soldier."

The Anastahan wore her poncho, which just barely sufficed to hide the absurd rifle-pistol from casual view.

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