[55]

He followed the faint smell of smoke to a stall near the edge of the market, sandwiched between an asari confectionery and a hanar diner. The place looked clean, freshly renovated, with spotless white tiles and clear glass tanks, not a speck of mold in sight. A neon orange sign hung over the storefront, some of the letters flickering once in a while. It was supposed to be artistic, he figured. The glass seemed to be hand-blown, and a permit on the Presidium was much too expensive for such oversights.

The woman behind the counter stood up when he approached. “What’ll it be?”

Saren pointed towards the rightmost tank. Nodding, she took up the net hanging over the glass edge and scooped out one of the fish, pure silver with a jade-green patch running along its belly. She slapped it onto a wooden block, slew it with a handheld shock prod, and began to clean it with a long, curved knife.

“Is it wild-caught?” He asked.

“Nope, farmed right here in the Widow,” she said, dropping the bloody entrails on a metal spatula. She rinsed her knife, and then started on the bones. “We get it from the same liveship that supplies Teucallix’s Market.” She flicked a mandible, indicating a location deeper in the complex. 

Good enough. “If I recall correctly, this used to be a liqueur store.”

She lifted up the backbone of the fish as well as all three sets of fin rays, tutted, and carved a bit more meat from the bone before discarding the lot somewhere behind the counter. “Yeah, we only opened four months ago. I’d say business has been booming, but that’d be a lie. My money’s on four more months before we close.”

“Not too much, thank you,” he told her when she started to rub seasoning into the pearly flesh. Eikul seeds were an acquired taste, and the mixture she used contained plenty, along with salt and boltweed. “Why do you say that?”

She splayed out the fish on an iron slab. As its edges curled and sizzled from the heat, she slid its organs onto the slab and stirred them with the sharp-edged spatula, cutting in a spoonful of sugar and dried berries. “There’s just not enough customers. Half the investors knew it beforehand, but three-quarters of them liked the novelty too much to give it up.” She flipped over the fillet. Its skull was singed a pale amber, promising a pleasant crunch. Even the smoke was heavy with the scent of spices. “Condiments?”

There were plenty to choose from, all neatly arranged in canteen-style tubs; chopped whitestrings, shaved meat, a dozen types of pickled fruits and herbs. He pointed out a few. “Add double the amount of pysal, please.”

She tipped heaping spoonfuls over the fish, smiled at him, and sprinkled an extra pinch of the wrinkled yellow cubes on top before folding it inside a paper sleeve. “Here.”

He tapped his credit chit with one hand and took the fish in the other. It was piping hot, though the temperature had not bothered the cook one bit. 

Saren held it over his shoulder, an acknowledgement of the reflection in the tiles. Slinking to his side, Nihlus sniffed it, nibbled on it, before backing away, chuckling. “I’d rather not sustain another tongue injury today.”

“How was the meeting?” Saren turned around.

Nihlus groaned. “I don’t understand. It was all in the report, but they insisted on making me clarify the casualty numbers no fewer than three times. Were they too low? And then Valern kept asking me for the detailed specs of the disguised transport before it got blown up. Probably suspects an illegal dock, but I don’t know those specs. Because the ship got blown up. And then Sparatus got worked up because I shouldn’t have double-counted the smugglers as casualties, apparently. You think Tevos likes me? You’re wrong, because she didn’t say a word until the end, when she told me to pack my ass to Illium next week. I’d almost made it to the elevator, too, but that reporter from Pulseline Daily got me.” He draped an arm around Saren. “All in all, I should’ve had breakfast before I left.”

Wordlessly, Saren offered the fish again. Nihlus looked to him, and the fish, and back to him; smiled, and bit down. A tantalising crunch.

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