Drax had never particularly understood why centers of prostitution were referred to as ‘red light districts’. Someone had explained to him that once, way back in the depths of time when Coruscanti soil actually saw the light of day, human prostitutes would identify their place of business with a lantern wrapped in red cloth. Or a red cord, in one case, but he figured that twist was from a different sort of story. Even so, it was a complete mystery to him why even his own species used the term. Just another one of those weird influences the human species had over the galaxy at large.
It would make more sense to him if whoring had itself been a human invention, but the weird fact that just about every species which a) didn’t have a clearly defined mating cycle, and b) had developed an economic system as least as sophisticated as ‘barter’, had also developed the profession. The Twi’lek, especially, had elevated the thing to damn near an art form.
Not that he had any problem with that. Ryloth was a good place to spend a month’s leave.
He was from some no-name planet on the ass-end of nowhere in the Outer Rim. Not that this was necessarily a disadvantage: see, for instance, the career and fates of the famed Skywalker clan. However, he had not been graced with Force-sensitivity and mad pod-racer skills. To get off of No-Name Ass-End, as he liked to think of it, had required much more guile and sheer, unmitigated gall than wait-for-the-hand-of-fate.
Every now and again, he’d notice someone from those days passing through Golgan III. He always made certain to be elsewhere.
He didn’t like that story. He never wanted to have to tell it. He was very grateful, therefore, that both Vran Diesato and Carlos DeLong had honored his wish not to talk about it. He was grateful, also, to Fortune’s (the only ‘god’ he even considered acknowledging, and only then for irony) dice roll which had landed him on Golgan III in the first place.
Even an atheist had leave room for Fortune. Otherwise, he’d never play cards.
Chance aside, new life aside, Drax’s old life had left him with an almost neurotic distaste for meetings, and fairly well experienced with red light districts. As such, walking into the one in Golgan III’s capital was like stepping into some weird parallel dimension. The building fronts were in fact decorated with honest-to-nihil lanterns covered in red paper. The streets and facades were clean; no drugged out women lay in alleyways; the air did not reek of piss and fluids and refuse and worse.
He knew that ‘worse’ had once been the norm. As a mere lieutenant, new to his rank, at the time DeLong had made the arrangement, he’d been to the Red many times; less so, now that he was actually important; he simply didn’t have time anymore. But in those early days he’d seen what it was like. It was very different now. The facades were almost pretty.
This was in fact his first visit to the Red in many years. And, confound it, it was just for a business meeting, abeit a weird one. Normally he’d send in a subordinate, but the intelligence was sensitive enough, and what he needed critical enough, that he decided to go himself. His contact had been glad, almost eager, to set up the appointment. Time would tell if that was a good thing or a bad.
The sounds of his footfalls echoed off the facades, and all the shadows changed as night fell and the lights came on. The primary lights were the red lanterns, which somehow managed to tint even the white street lamps. The effect left him mildly unsettled; he strained his senses as the fight-or-flight response set in. His heart started to pound, and his muscles went taught, and for a moment his hindbrain thought it was still in the warrens of No-Name Ass-End, with Fortune only knew what coming up…
When the footfalls and laughter sounded behind him, he barely managed to avoid jumping a few feet in the air and then doing something very stupid. Instead he turned slowly and calmly, with his heart attempting to batter his sternum into tiny pieces. The source of the noise was a handsome young man, a GDF lieutenant junior-grade, in undress blacks with flashings and device marking him a fighter pilot on the Freedom’s Fire. A young lady hung onto his arm, pressed up against him, and he hovered somewhat protectively over her in the red light; though both had an air about them of one playing a game.
Drax himself was in full uniform, and the lieutenant drew up short and braced to attention – as best able, with the girl on his arm – when he noticed that a commodore was staring at him. Drax chuckled one, then nodded magnanimously and waved them on their way. He watched them go, and then shook his head; that was the purpose of the red light. To trigger the fight-or-flight response, and flood the system with adrenaline and endorphins and various analogues thereof. It was a mood-setter, and he’d fallen for it.
He shook his head in disgust at being so easily manipulated by a cheap psychological ploy. In an effort to restore his good mood – it would not do to stay mad – he conjured up the image of how big the lieutenant’s eyes had gotten. That made him laugh out loud, and he carried on.
He was still chuckling over the look on the lieutenant’s face – what did he expect Drax to say, since the Red was neither illegal nor counter to regs, and their were both in it? – when he finally arrived at his destination. It was, in all honesty, the plainer of all the buildings in the Red. The facade was simple brick with poplar trim; the wood not painted but weather-treated and stained in such a way as to bring out and preserve the blues and purples of the freshly planed grain. It contrasted well with the brick, and took on an interesting hue in the red light.
This was the office/domicile of Carlotta Starspell, known as Lady Carlotta by the respectful and/or maliciously ironic, respected and feared by all as Madam of the Red. Even by the maliciously ironic, as malicious irony rolled off her and gave her free rein to counter with her own sharp tongue. She’d seen too much to be fazed by often self-righteous fools who thought themselves of high wit.
It seemed strange to Drax that she would adopt such a plain building, given the ostentation of some of the other facades. Still, he figured that in some strange, backwards way, it made her easy to find… and easy to underestimate. He could understand that, though in the old days he’d preferred to be easy to underestimate and hard to find. But different strokes, and all of that.
He stepped up to the door and rang the buzzer.
“Yes?” came a voice. He couldn’t tell if the voice was a male countertenor or a female mezzosoprano, and he could barely tell that it came from an artificial vocorder. He nodded to himself in appreciation.
“Commodore Drax, here to see Lady Carlotta,” he said quietly. “I have an appointment.”
“You may enter,” said the voice, and the door swung open a fraction. He pushed it open, admiring the mindset behind it; anyone entering would have to touch the door, and likely leave some sort of physical evidence. Carlotta had reason to be paranoid; most of the old pimps, except for the absolute worst, had taken deals and gotten off of Golgan III rather than face charges for battery, rape, and murder. They never forgot who it was who had cost them their businesses.
He stepped into the foyer and closed the door behind him. The difference between inside and out was striking; the walls were covered in darkwood paneling, and softly lit. Well-cushioned chairs, colored to match the paneling, stood in each corner, each with a small desk and reading light next to it. The desks looked to hold several stacks of data chips and one or two datapads a piece; clearly she did not believe in ‘bored while you wait’.
Drax was contemplating one of the chairs when an astromech droid rolled into the doorway into the main room, and caught his complete attention. It was an R2 unit, but clearly an older model. Which was in itself not weird, even in the Red; a good astromech, especially an after market R2, was considered a wise investment, especially for a prostitute – courtesan, he mentally corrected himself, now that he was in Carlotta’s domain. So what caught his attention was not the presence of an R2 unit, but rather it’s color scheme.
The damn thing was painted the brightest, yellowest yellow he’d ever seen, with lime green highlights and detailing. His eyes crossed just at the sight of it.
The R2 unit retracted the middle limb, then drew up to full height and whirred and bowed at him. Uncertainly, he bowed back. The droid straightened, redeployed the middle limb, then turned a full circle in the door and started into the main room. It beeped twice at him and moved it’s sensor dome in a way which Drax took to mean ‘follow me’.
So he did, and discovered the main room to be even more of a contrast with the red outside than was the foyer. The light, if anything, was even softer than in the foyer; though there more sources, from ceiling fixtures to wall sconces, so the room was by no means dark. It was modestly apportioned, with only a couch – albeit a large and lush one – and a single table with two chairs. The walls were a gentle beige, and the carpet a subtly darker shade. Art hung on each wall, depictions of forests and great cities, wild waterfalls and starships in dock. Four doors, each with a scomp-lock, led to other rooms in the building. The R2 unit headed for the furthermost door.
Unsure of what to do next – and somewhat wary of sitting on the couch, he didn’t know where it had been – Drax studied the art. He pushed up his glasses in surprise when he realized that none of them were holograms; they were all real pain on real canvas. He’d seen enough art – sometime very close up – to know that they were not in any way professionally done, but that whoever had painted them had no small amount of talent.
A whirring sound flitted across the room as the droid engaged the scomp-lock, and Drax took a second look at the painting of the waterfall. The person who’d painted it had clearly never seen a real waterfall – in books, maybe, or on the holo, but never in person. Yet there was something to the piece, a psychological character more felt than seen, which indicated to Drax that the painted had really, really wanted to see a waterfall. To stick their hands into the cascade, to jump in the pool and stand beneath it, and laugh and glory as the great curtains splashed on and around her…
But she had given up on seeing that waterfall, he realized with a shock, and with the same certainty with which he knew that the artist was a woman. Somehow, in a way which he could never define while sober, and probably never while drunk, he knew that the longing in that painting was a hopeless one.
In times like that he wished that the Jedi had not proven that sentients had souls. On impulse he reached up to touch the painting.
“Please don’t,” came a softly accented, alto, clearly female and clearly organic voice. He withdrew his hand quickly, and turned somewhat embarrassedly. He’d been so taken up in the waterfall that he hadn’t even heard Lady Carlotta enter.
She was a tall, willowy brunette, her hair flowing loose over her shoulders and to the middle of her back., highlighted by streaks of dark red. An older woman, early forties at least, for all that he could tell, though still exceedingly beautiful. Large brown eyes, which had a veneer of softness, and a genuine kindness, but he could see the steel beneath them. Firm, decently sized breasts. And her exceedingly beautiful features? Sharp and chiseled like a stone knife; weathered, with a story behind every line; full lips, lightly olive skin. There might have been some cosmetic work behind that, but if there was then it had merely taken her obvious maturity and built on it, rather than attempting to recapture the cuteness of youth.
She wore a light pink, simply-cut, though with a plunging neckline, short-sleeved blouse. A dark red, ankle-length dress and comfortable looking shoes completed the ensemble. She held her hands behind her.
An attractive and striking woman, even to Devaronian eyes. For a moment Drax was disappointed that he was here on business, and not for pleasure. Human and Devaronian genetics weren’t close enough to produce crossbreeds, save in very rare and very controlled conditions, but they were close enough that the accouterments of nature were quite similar. Though dissimilar enough that his first time with a human woman had been… pleasantly awkward. He’d become a big fan of the scientific method, after that.
For a fleeting moment, he considered making an offer. Then he took another look at those eyes, at the steel and the reflection of the furnace in which they were forged, and thought better of it. This was a person worth respecting, not – what was the General’s phrase? oh, right – treating like ‘a cheap nerf-burger’.
“Apologies, lady,” Drax said quietly, as he let his hand rest at his sides. “I meant no offense.”
“None was taken,” she said, again quietly, but not at all lightly. “They are all I have left of those girls, you see, I don’t want to risk damage.”
“Again, lady, my abject apologies.” Good heavens, this was starting on the wrong foot. “I did not know.”
Carlotta waved it off, then walked up to him. To his eyes she seemed to glide.
“Commodore… Drax, correct?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and actually braced to attention. She had that damnable command presence which could actually command his respect; after time in the GDF bracing for such person was second nature.
She grinned at him, brilliantly, and laughed.
“At ease, at ease!” she said, and held out her hand. “Carlotta Starspell.”
He took her hand.
“Commodore Drax,” he said, and then on impulse raised her hand and kissed it. “An honor, lady.”
Now her grin formed dimples.
“Enough with the lady, Commodore,” she said, releasing his hand and stepping back a pace. “Just Carly, please. I’m not, and have never been, a ‘lady’.”
He wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he just smiled and shoulder-bowed in acknowledgment of the point. She nodded and then started walking around him.
“Commodore Drax,” she said quietly, to herself. “Carlos’ chief of intelligence… and Second Squadron commander, correct?”
“That is right.” He found it odd that she would refer to General DeLong by his first name.
“And a Devaronian…,” she whispered. She tapped her teeth one, then turned to the R2 unit.
“Katya, two cups of sohan tea, sugar in mine, two sprigs of mint in the Commodore’s. Also, a serving of raspberry scones,” she ordered. The droid – Katya – beeped, bowed, then headed for one of the other doors, which Drax deduced led towards a kitchen of some sorts.
“Good girl,” she whispered, and then turned back to him.
“You know your chemistry, la- Carly,” he said appreciatively. Sohan tea was not only a tea which both humans and Devaronians could metabolize, but which both species actually liked. The spring of mint, for him, was an exceptionally skillful touch. The raspberry scones were also equally palatable, and complemented well the flavor of the tea.
“One has to, in my line of work. We get more than just humans here, you know.”
“I am well aware. I read your intelligence reports,” he said with sharp-toothed smile of his own.
“Hence, your visit.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, somewhat nervously. “I do not mean to question your affairs-” he winced at the word choice, “- but are there any, ah, active recording devices?”
“All the buildings are wired for video and sound,” she said. “Sometimes a customer wants to take a record home; sometimes we broadcast live. But don’t worry, I switch off all of that when I saw you coming. You can see the control board, if you’d like.”
“No, I do not think I need to,” he said, deciding to trust her. “And yes, I am here on business. But first, I must ask…,” he gestured at the paintings, “were these all by, ah…”
“Anastasia, Tinata, Cottontail, and Klavdiya,” she said pointing at each of the works in turn. Drax got the idea that ‘Cottontail’ was a nickname; there was a story there but he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.. “All my girls, back… before. Katya was another; I had nothing of hers except her name. All are dead.”
“I am very sorry. For what it is worth.”
“Much, Commodore. Few enough were even that, in those days. We were just a dark secret to keep tucked away in the city. They died of hopelessness, and of cruelty. At one point, though, they made these.”
“They did very well. This one here – Cottontail, you said – would have had great success in the neo-classical school.”
“You’re familiar with art, Commodore?”
“Somewhat, yes,” he said hastily. How best to explain his story, that most of his experience with art was up close personal, the pieces bare inches from him as he held them close and ran like hell from the gendarme?
Before the conversation went any farther the kitchen door whooshed open and Katya rolled in, bearing a full tea set.
Carlotta touched his elbow and steered him towards the couch.
“That must be quite the story,” she said. “You’ll have to tell me sometime, but for now, we will have tea.”
A jolt from the touch ran up his arm and into his chest, and he found that he wanted to tell her the story. The whole, unmentionable, unheroic, and downright dishonorable saga of how he’d come from No-Name Ass-End to Golgan III. That if anyone would understand, it would be her, given what all she’d been involved in-
Which was the whole point, wasn’t it? That was the game; that was how he was supposed to feel around her. She had been trained, had taught herself, to make men desire intimacy with her; how else would they be convinced to pay her for it, rather than another prostitute? He wanted to trust her, General DeLong trusted, but were either of them right to do so? Had she simply sized the General up, years ago, and played him as she had undoubtedly played other customers?
Was there any truth to be had in the Red?
But for now, he had more immediate problems. Like the couch. He paused before it, and she looked at him quizzically.
“About the couch,” he said, hesitantly, and pushing aside his questions, “do you- I mean- sanitation?”
He had no clue what he meant to say, but that wasn’t really it. Her eyes got wide, and he was half afraid she’d haul off and slap him. Then she doubled over laughing.
She had such a nice laugh.
“Sanitation!” she crowed, then broke to giggling. “Sanitation! I don’t entertain customers on the couch, that’s what the other rooms are for!” She snorted. “Sanitation, indeed!”
“It is a perfectly valid concern,” he said sharply, attempting to regain some dignity. Alas, but this only made her giggle all the more.
“You’re very silly,” she said, then pointed him back towards the couch and let her laughter fade. “Now sit, Commodore, and relax.”
He pushed his glasses up his nose and sat, with much gravitas. She snorted again and sat down next to him, but with a meter’s separation. Then, sharply, “Katya!”
The droid rolled over, tea tray balanced on it’s dome. It parked next to the couch, and Drax noticed that the tray had legs on it. Katya somehow maneuvered so that it set the tea tray on the floor and could back out from under it without tipping anything over. The droid warbled a question at Carlotta.
“No, I think we’re fine for now,” she said soothingly. “But put on some music. Schovar, Liebeslieder No. 62, Ai no Sakura. Conversational volume, please.”
The droid whistled, did its weird bow, and rolled off .