The set held two porcelain tea cups, a tea pot of similar composition, and a simple plate holding the scones. According to the latest social conventions, the tea cups did not rest upon accompanying saucers. Gold filigree decorated the rim of the cups, and ran down the sides in a mandelbrot pattern. Emerald green enamel with lime highlights encrusted the handle. The tea pot and the plate of scones were decorated in a similar scheme. Drax found the visual effect exotic and pleasing.
They waited for a moment, and then lilting strains of the liebeslieder wove through the air. Drax thought it a lovely piece, written for harp and piano and full strings; whimsical, yet with deep undercurrents of melancholy, and deeper, subtler undercurrents of quiet hope. She did not move or change her posture at all, but Drax noticed something… shift in her face, around her eyes. A softening in remembrance… or maybe something else.
Before he could follow that idea any further, Carlotta shook off whatever it was, and from her perch on the couch lifted the tea pot and began to pour the tea. She started with his cup, again according to social convention: the host or hostess poured for the guest first, in descending order of social prominence, if the guests were known to care about such things. (The military did things opposite, with the guests at any given tea or dinner served in ascending order of rank; that was one of General DeLong’s quirkier innovations; Drax was not sure if that was a good thing or bad thing, though he did enjoy the discomfort it produced in the average ensign or junior enlisted man.) Carlotta spilled not a single drop of tea, nor did she touch the pot to either cup; her every movement was graceful, precise, and exceptionally controlled.
She turn slightly and handed him his teacup, again with that same graceful precision.
Then, in full defiance of all civilian social convention, she picked up her teacup and took the first sip. Drax grinned, raised his cup in salute, and took a sip of his own. Sohan was a special blend of two black teas and one green tea, and whoever had made this tea had outdone themselves in bringing out and mixing the flavors. There was also an extra… something, in there, which he couldn’t quite identify, but which complemented well with the flavor from the mint sprigs. He took another sip, and let himself relax a bit.
Not a lot, but a bit was allowable. Naturally, Carlotta noticed this.
“How’s your tea, Commodore?” she asked. “I have Katya trained in tea-making, but sometimes even the best astromech doesn’t quite ‘get it’.”
“Then my complements to your droid,” he replied dryly. “It is very good.” Then, as she was taking another sip of her own, he added, “Though there is a flavor present which I cannot identify, and now hope is not leaked droid grease.”
Damn her, but she managed to avoid spewing the tea. He did, though, have the slight satisfaction of watching her throat move in weird ways as she tried to swallow tea past an involuntary giggle, and seeing her hold the teacup at her mouth for several seconds longer than a sip usually required. But she recovered quickly, and replaced her teacup on the tray, with nothing more to show for the experience than a brief glare in his direction and definitely amused twinkle in her eyes.
“No, Commodore,” she said once she’d recovered, though her voice cracked just a tad, “we try- excuse me- we try to make sure that Katya doesn’t leak in the kitchen.”
“A wise idea.” He raised his cup. “Ah… what is it, then?”
“Something in the green tea leaves. We’re not entirely sure what.”
He froze, the cup held tilted against his lips.
“It’s nothing bad,” Carlotta said quickly.
He relaxed, slightly, and took the sip.
“At least, we don’t think it is. No one’s done a study on long-term effects.”
Damn him, but the only reason he avoided spewing the tea across the room was because he hadn’t moved the cup yet. As soon as he replaced all the undrunk tea in the cup, he set it down on the tray, perhaps a bit roughly.
“Long term-” he sputtered, once he was done coughing, “No study- why would- what did I just drink?!”
“Sohan tea, Commodore, with mint. Nothing more than that. Certainly not droid grease.”
“The truth, now? The black teas are imported; for some reason our local varieties don’t come out quite right. The green tea, on the other hand, comes from one of the islands in the Olahan archipelago. There’s something in the soil there which gets into the tea plants and isn’t metabolized out. We don’t know exactly what combination of chemicals it is, but the biochem people assure me that there is nothing there poisonous to any known sentient species. Even those who don’t like tea.”
“Not liking something and suffering a horrible death from it are two different things,” Drax protested. “How do they know whatever-this-is is harmless if they cannot define it?”
“I’m told they got drunk and dared a wandering Gamorrean to drink some of it.”
“That proves nothing. One could give a Gamorrean cyanide and nothing would happen.”
“What about iocaine?”
“Iocaine, fine. I will grant you that. For everything not iocaine, however-” he stopped and glared at her in sudden realization. “You are attempting to get a rise out of me.”
“No. I’m succeeding.”
He glared at her some more. She smiled back, and took a sip of her tea. At last he snorted and shook his head, then let his glare fade in spite of himself.
“You are certain, then, that this will not kill me?”
“As certain as I can be about anything around here.”
“How do I know you are telling me the truth?”
“You just have to trust me, Commodore. Otherwise your tea will get cold, go to waste, and Katya will become very annoyed.”
A faint beep-whir from elsewhere in the building seemed to confirm this.
“And I would not wish to annoy the astromech,” Drax said quickly. “I have seen what can result.”
“Dare I ask?”
“Let us just say that it relates to the last time I trusted a drink – of unknown composition – which someone else gave to me.”
She stared at Drax, and he stared at the teacup.
He picked up the teacup.
“The last time I trusted another with my drink,” he said quietly and seriously, “I wound up naked in a cell three days later, accused of a crime I did not commit and half believing myself to be an apple tart.”
He took a sip of tea, then set the cup back down and picked up a raspberry scone. He took a bite of scone – it was still warm, and tasted exceptional – and then placed the remainder atop the teacup. He arranged them just so, and then looked into Carlotta’s eyes and gave her a slow nod.
She nodded back.
“What convinced you?”
“Years ago a young fugitive came to this world looking for work. A certain man – imperfect, but honorable in his way – trusted that fugitive enough to give him a place. That same man trusts you, Carlotta of the Red. So I must as well. Otherwise I deny myself, and the trust placed in me.”
“Something of the sort,” Drax said, then shrugged. “I believe our mutual friend would call it honor.”
“Honor is philosophy.”
Drax grinned, then lifted up the scone in salute. This, for some reason, set Carlotta near rolling with laughter. Drax munched his scone in satisfaction.
“I believe that leaves us even.”
“Sure, sure, whatever,” Carlotta said once she got herself back under control. “Enjoying the scone?”
“Immensely. Did Katya make these as well?”
“I did those, actually.”
“Have you considered a second career as a pastry chef?”
“Are you kidding? I license that stuff. I do better selling recipes to other people than I would with a bakery of my own. This business is trouble enough.”
“I can somewhat understand why. On occasion I have to deal with politicians.”
“Please. Don’t insult us.”
Drax finished the scone, then took a sip of tea and leaded back against the arm of the couch, cradling the cup in his hands. Carlotta took a sip of her own, and then leaned on her side against the back of the couch, facing him.
“As much I have enjoyed the banter,” Drax said, “I fear we must get down to business.”
“I was wondering when that would happen.”
“Yes, well,” he said, and tried to find a good lead in. Lacking one, he decided to press on and see what happened. “You are familiar with the recent events on the Outer Rim, at the eastern edge of the galaxy?”
“I know that an Ex-Gal facility was destroyed on Belkadan, and that whatever attacked them launch incursions as far in as Xenen. And here.”
“You are well informed.”
“Well, yes. I was in-system at the time. As for the rest… people talk. None from your department, though.”
“I should hope not. The General and I trained them better than that. In any case, you are correct. I will not get into the details what happened at Belkadan, but the name of the species is Yuuzhan Vong, and they appear to hail from somewhere outside of our own galaxy. The force which attacked Xenen has been linked – by force composition and analysis of tactics – to three other smaller enemy forces operating up and down the Shermach trade route. We believe these to be spoiling units operating independent of the main force.”
“Commercial raiders, then?”
“An apt description, though some of us believe that their target is not just New Republic supply lines. We believe that they are seeking to force the New Republic fleet to deploy assets defensively against them, rather than against the invasion force. They are a diversion, one which the New Republic cannot afford. Not with an enemy of unknown strength pouring in across the Rim.”
“Fascinating,” Carlotta replied. “So this has what to do with me?”
“Precious intelligence was brought to the New Republic by an Ex-Gal survivor named Danni Quee – and the Jedi Knight Jacen Solo.” Her eyes widened, just a bit, and Drax nodded. “Yes, they were involved, and so was Skywalker. Ms. Quee was their captive for several days; fortunately she has they eyes of a trained scientist and observer.”
Also fortunate that General DeLong had a good contact in Tag Rendar, which allowed Drax access to the information; but he decided it would not be profitable to mention that, and so carried on.
“What I am about to tell you does not leave this room.”
“Like I said, the recorders are off; plus, I can be very good at forgetting things. I find it useful, in my line of work.”
“I can believe it. Intelligence has been instructed to come of with a list of probable Yuuzhan Vong targets on the Shermach. General DeLong wishes to stage an ambush against one of the raiding fleets. Our recommendations are nearly finished, but… I cannot confirm them yet. Not entirely, not to the extent I wish. There is much that we learned from her about the Yuuzhan Vong, but I need…” He grew awkward. “I… my apologies, but there is no safe way to ask this. There is a sociological question regarding the Yuuzhan Vong on which I require outside advice, and I fear that you were the first to come to mind.”
She took another sip of tea, and motioned for him to go on. He took a deep breath, steeled himself, and… went on.
“Are you, or are any of your… employees… familiar with the BDSM subculture?”
The teacup clicked against her teeth, and her hands shook so hard that she nearly spilled the tea. She set the cup down, and it rattled loudly against the tray. She rapidly clenched and unclenched her fists as she placed them in her lap.
“I… what did you just ask me?” Her voice was quiet and harsh, like the wind before a Tatooine sandstorm.
“Forgive me, please,” he said, and felt quite wretched; he had delighted in attempting to break her poise earlier; now he had done so, and he felt no pleasure about it at all. “I did not mean to upset you.”
“So why the hell did you have to ask about that?”
“Because we have inferred, from Ms. Quee’s observations, that the Yuuzhan Vong believe pain is the special province of their gods,” he continued desperately, hoping that she would understand. “They consider it a religious duty to experience and inflict pain, for in doing so they bring themselves closer to their gods – closer to reality.”
A dark place in his brain whispered that they might just have a point. He told it to shut the frak up and continued on.
“Bondage, domination, submission, and sado-masochism is the closest galactic subculture to that which I could find. To accurately predict the movements of I must come to a better understanding of their psychology, and I do not – and I do not understand a mindset which glorifies the infliction of pain, or which derives a sexual pleasure from hurting another or from being hurt. I never have. Only a sexual masochist could come close to understanding that psychology, which I why I must speak with someone who is one.”
He stopped when he realized that Carlotta had gone very pale. She stared at him, her face undreadable, and then she turned her back on him and quickly unzipped and pulled down her dress.
His indrawn breath hissed violently through his teeth when he saw the red scars on her back.
“I’m not a masochist, Commodore,” she said quietly, still facing away. Then she turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. “But a true sadist would like it that way. Back in the old days a customer could come in, get one of us and do whatever the f— he wanted. Beat the girl? Sure, fine, just don’t kill her; the girl makes good money for the pimp, you know. Then they beat us and beat us and beat us until we bleed and we let them just because if we don’t fight then maybe the sick bastard will get bored and quit-”
She stopped and squeezed her eyes shut against sudden tears. Drax took a chance and leaned towards her, and rested his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t twist away, but instead reached up and grasped it as if she feared it would vanish once she let go.
“Some things we try to forget, Commodore,” she said quietly, her eyes still shut. “But some things we can’t.”
“Some memories are carved into us,” he said, just as quietly. “A lot like scars.”
“A good bacta treatment would have gotten rid of these. Even after the fact.”
“I got rid of most of them. Bad for business; johns expect the girl to be pretty. But these… these I keep. So I can remember; who we were, who we are, how we were used and how we will never be used again.”
He squeezed her shoulder, but gently. She squeezed his hand back, and then let go. He took the hint, and withdrew his own.
“Your touch is very gentle, Commodore.”
“I have had enough of roughness.”
“Years ago I would have sold all I had to be touched like that.”
There seemed no comment he could make to that. She accepted his silence for what it was, and then pulled her dress back up and refastened it.
“Still and all,” she said, her voice almost back to normal, “it is a lot better now. We drove the pimps out, and we can… deal… with the overly abusive type. But we don’t get many of those anymore; words gets around in the spacers that we aren’t the place for that. Our clientèle is of a… better quality now.”
“High quality johns?”
“Of course. Take, for example, the young lieutenant you passed after you entered the Red.” He raised an eyebrow at her, which provoked out a normal sounding chuckle. “Oh yes, I have this place wired. I know who comes in, and who goes out, and you should be glad of that Commodore Drax, as that’s how I can get such good intel to you!”
She faced him now with a raised eyebrow her own.
“I will endeavor not to complain.”
“Good boy. Now, the lieutenant was one Bren Silversun, a pilot off of Freedom’s Fire.”
“I know of him,” Drax interrupted. “His flight was escorting Damien Korsetti’s prisoner transport out-system when we were attacked. By all accounts his flight comported itself well.”
“Good for them. Young Silversun is one of our better customers, both in terms of frequency-” at this she picked up her cup and took a sip of tea “-and quality. Most of the girls love him, and actively compete to see which one gets a session. He is never abusive. He is gentle. He is fun, and likes to play.” She took another sip. “Has something of a penchant for adventure and dragon-slaying, although he seems to have a one-track mind when it comes to who plays the dragons.”
“Really. You’d think Imperial Stormtroopers had nothing better to do than run around stealing a maiden’s virtue, after watching him for too long.”
“He may wind up with a new villain du juor, once this war starts in earnest.”
They each took a sip of tea.
“I noticed that you said ‘most’ of the girls love him,” Drax remarked.
“Sharp ears. Almost as sharp as the horns.”
“They have kept me alive. So have the horns.”
“If your circles have been anything like mine, I don’t doubt that at all. But yes, I said ‘most’. We swore, Carlos and I, that the girls would never be used in any way without their consent. The key, there, being the word consent.”
She paused and took a sip of tea.
The droid rolled out with an inquisitive warble.
“Get on the com and tell Anna that I need her to come over, please.”
The droid warbled assent and rolled off.
“Anna is our most experience masochist,” Carlotta explained. “She can tell you what you need to know. Just… don’t get to squicked out by what she says, okay?”
“I shall contain my revulsion at the thought that someone gets off on getting hit or worse.”
“You’re not into that lifestyle at all, are you?”
“Not in the least.”
“I knew I liked you, Commodore.”
3 Hours Later
“That,” Drax said as he and Carlotta stood in the foyer after seeing Anna out, “was the single most disturbing thing I have ever heard.”
“You knew it existed.”
“I know that supernova exist. I have never seen one, so I cannot fully understand what it means for a star to die. Experience has a greater impact than theory.”
She touched his arm.
“Oh, yes. Did you learn what you needed?”
“I think- yes. I know how to read the information now. Or I think I know; either way I will make my best guess. This will make it a better guess than it would have been.”
“Good. Good. I’ll offer up prayers for you success, and for the GDF’s.”
He looked at her askance.
That didn’t come out at all the way he meant. Fortunately, she did not take offense.
“I do, actually. Tara and I meet for lunch every fourday. I do most of the talking, she does most of the sympathetic listening.”
“Commodore d’Avignon? And I thought I was the only one.” He paused, considering something. “A religious person who listens to a ‘heathen’. She is very rare, in that.”
“Unfortunately, you’re more right than some would like to believe. I could tell you stories… But she does it. I asked, once, if her god would mind if I prayed to him. She said he most certainly would not mind, but would welcome it. So… yes. I pray. And now, I’ll pray for you.”
“You pray,” he said quietly, and then shook his head. “I am an atheist Carlotta; there is no higher power to call on, just us and nature and chance. Even so… I appreciate it.” He smiled, and then perverse curiosity got the better of him. “Does… does anything hear?”
“Sometimes? Probably not. Other times…” she trailed off and shrugged. Somehow that left him more unsettled than if she’d said yes or no. Again, perverse curiosity claimed him.
“What do you look for, in going after Tara’s god?”
“Same thing our friend showed you and me, Commodore.”
“I will not debate it,” he said finally, after a long, silent moment. “Neither if there is any need for grace, nor if there is anyone to offer grace. Tara and I have done so many times, and all we have concluded is that we like the same beer.”
“Probably a good place. We don’t try to kill people we share beer with.”
“This is true. However, the Vong, as far as I know, do not drink beer,” he said with a dry smile. “Until they discover that wondrous use of grain…”
“You’ll have to fight them. I guess you have an intelligence assessment to go over.”
“I am afraid so.”
“If you should ever find the time, Commodore, I would be glad to have you over again.”
“Maybe even beer. Purely pleasure, and hey,” she batted her eyes coquettishly, “for senior officers, the first time is free.”
“For tea, or beer, plus good conversation, I would be glad of it,” he replied. “For the rest… I would be glad of that, to. Actually, I believe I would enjoy it. Immensely.”
She turned a bit red, but grinned enough to show dimples. She held out her hand to him, he took it, and then raised it up to his lips. Then he released her.
“Good night, Carlotta.”
“Good night, Commodore Drax.”