{2} Fray

Fray watches her pack scatter like crows to a feast, and she chuckles to herself. She’s glad to see that none of them glance back to see if she approves; she’s relieved they’ve lightened up, finally, even on the run and under extreme pressure. In a darker timeline, without her to mother them, the Damn Shames are, to this day, a flaccid arm of the Navy with a stick up their collective ass. But in this reality, Fray’s aggressive push for them to have some fucking fun once in a while has worked. They don’t really need her to say it anymore.

She’s grateful they ask her to say it anyway. It’s stupid, but she is.

And, now that the chicks have fled the nest, she gets a moment to herself. Which is something Freyja Sintre has never taken for granted.

The Regent stands still, hands on hips, rotating only her shoulders and head as she absorbs the Spyglass Cavern with her own two eyes. She knows what everything is—she’s been here before, though never physically. On wallscreen walkthroughs, the Spyglass is stunning. In person, it’s breath-stealing, heart-stopping.

Beautiful creatures from across the galaxy stand, stride, crouch, and sprawl everywhere. Even the staff are attractive, hired to meet a standard Fray can’t quite put her finger on, but which she’s seen everywhere she’s been in the galaxy. Said beautiful creatures are draped in finery of eye-popping value, but even that can’t prevent them from paling against the natural beauty of the cave.

Private islands—better to call them ecosystems—of lush, brightly-colored plant life spring up every few meters, carefully buttressed by tasteful screens and lit with ambient glow from faux foliage. Some of these islands’ ecosystems produce their own glow, too, reaching up towards the soft, swirling white stone of the cave’s ceiling. It makes Fray feel like she’s falling to the bottom of an aquarium.

The cavern itself is deceptively massive, feeling intimate here at the entrance because the public spaces are still at ground level. It begins to fall away a few hundred meters back, where open spaces become private chambers, and even further back the cavern dips deep underground. It’s there that it earns its Spyglass name: there’s a natural tower all the way up to the top of the cliff, where a thin layer of clear natural crystal magnifies the sky and clouds from below. Fray can’t see it from here, of course, but she can just see a bloom in the darkness, where the meager light from the rainy day above trickles through the crystal skylight.

Suddenly, her instincts warn her to crouch in a ready position, before she registers why: she tunes in to soft, deliberate footsteps, very close. But there’s no one near enough to make the sound. Fray’s hand drops to the handle of her obsidian knife in her boot before a distinct smell makes her stiffen and let go of the weapon.

“Perhaps madam Fray would care to join me at the bar,” whispers a voice on the air, with that smell again: candles just extinguished.

Who’d spend an untone on me? Fray wonders, before her stomach dips with a sudden hope. Only a few beings in the galaxies can afford the financial and spiritual costs of the half-magical, half-scientific magence knowledge of untoning. Fewer still know Fray well enough and yet don’t fear her enough to ask her to drink with them…

And there’s only one man who meets those criteria whose presence in the Spyglass Tavern would not surprise her.

Fray raises her head and looks to the bar. Indeed. There he is. Leaning against the counter in that attractively petulant way he does, he’s rubbing a glass with a towel in a manner Fray finds alarmingly arousing.

“Breth Urand,” she mouths with at him with exaggerated amounts of lips and tongue, and she’s rewarded by a twitch of his manicured eyebrows. Fray flicks her right hand out, feeling the insubstantial form of the untone give way to her strength. The candle smell intensifies, then fades. Fray shoots Breth a cat-like smile through the dissipating remnants of his expensive magence. She’s very glad she decided to wear the leather today.

She strides to the bar with the borrowed grace of adrenaline-fueled exhaustion, and he straightens at her approach. “Breth Urand,” she says again, vocally this time, and the silvery-haired man who could be twice or half her age turns a shade darker. “I certainly didn’t expect you to be servingtonight.”

She says the word in a very particular way. Urand, towering a foot and a half over her, blushes and curls into himself. Remembering. Then the proprietor of the galactically-famed Spyglass Tavern replies very softly, “I came down when I heard you were here, madam.”

“Princess,” she corrects without pause. The word is loud enough, the three women entangled in one another over the farthest bar stools interrupt their orgy of kisses to tune in. “You know better than that.”

“Yes, Princess,” Urand says through gritted teeth to the glass in his hands, as if he hopes the patrons’ attention will be diverted if he’s quiet. “My front desk informed me you’d arrived. I thought I should greet you personally, since I was here anyway.”

He skips lightly over the last five words, and Fray recognizes a kindred liar and lets it slide. For now. Especially because he adds, “And ‘cause I missed you.”

The words make Fray’s whole being shiver and sigh, body and spirit. He missed her. How could he know how much she hates that; craves it, too? She doesn’t allow herself the luxury of missing people, not even the ones who matter—when she can help it. Urand’s undercurrent threatens to tow her down and make her fuss about her dear Riss, back on the base, waiting for her. Or—no. No further than that, she tells herself.

There are too many people to miss. She’ll be here all night, moping about the past.

And she’d much rather spend all night doing something else entirely.

Only the blue crystal counter stands between her and Urand. Fray swings her hip up onto a stool and leans forward on her elbows, crossing her hands under her chin. “So,” she says in a voice only for Urand, releasing the trio of women from their pointed curiosity, “what are you serving tonight?”

His dark gray gaze dances across her body, lingering on her lips but locking to her eyes. He doesn’t say it, but she hears it in his stare. You.

She twirls a finger in a tiny pool of water on the bar. It ripples with an audible giggle and transforms into a tiny translucent amphibian, which scuttles up Fray’s arm and perches damply on her shoulder. She smiles at it, then tips her head back to point the smile at Urand. “How lovely.”

“Keep him,” Urand grunts. “He’s a pain.” But he’s clearly not unfond of the creature.

Fray’s smile widens. She grasps the creature gently and sets it down on the bar. It collapses immediately into a perfect imitation of a puddle. “I think not,” she says, laughing. “He belongs to the cavern as much as you do.”

For the first time since she set eyes on him tonight, Urand relaxes a little, even managing a chuckle. “Sharp, Princess. What’ll it be? Can I get you a drink, at least?”

“You never answered me. What are you serving tonight?” She chucks herself gently under the chin as she asks, and is pleased to see Urand unable to keep his eyes off her fingers. Typical.

He tosses his mane of thick black hair, as if trying to shake off her spell. His eyes narrow and fill with shadows, and Fray follows his glare to one of the private islands, where a pair of suited humans sit stiffly in conversation with a woman dressed in a revealing medical uniform. She’s waving her hands and trying to engage the suits, but their body language shows their unwillingness to be charmed.

Urand looks back at Fray and pulls a face.

“Inspectors?” she guesses. “Promiskers?”

He nods. “Promiskers. What else. Me and the workers are hip-deep in ‘em. They show up, frisk the girls, kick the boys around, slap the rest a bit, because why not. All in the name of organized pleasure.” Urand sighs, his broad shoulders sagging, and Fray realizes how defeated he looks. How many lines cross his forehead. “Makes a man want to turn criminal just to keep his kids safe from the law.”

Fray looks back at the suits for a moment longer, then to Urand. “You don’t keep a lot of muscle in here.” A pointed glance at the sidearm tucked in his pocket.

He touches the bulge of the weapon, wincing. “Not supposed to have that either.”

“I’ve never seen you so neutered. What’s really going on, Breth?” Hearing the twinge in her own voice, Fray realizes she’s harboring as much concern about the state of the galaxy as he is. If the only entrepreneur she knows who has a flawless record is worried this badly… “Weren’t there just a bunch of prostitution labor law reforms? And, whiskey on the rocks.”

He makes her the drink without thought. He keeps his husky voice low, but it sharpens with intensity as he speaks. She wishes she could sidle up beside him, feel his words reverberate in her chest. “The reforms made shit worse. Prostitutes, a ‘protected class’? Please. Protected classes didn’t even exist before last year. It’s the UEE’s way of making a bunch of jobs for promiskers so that privileged assholes can get educated for them and then shove people around. And it’s their way of locking us down with strict regulations on what every other godsdamn service can do for us. Did you know,” he continues, moving closer, and Fray bends her spine back to look him fully in the face, “that if this place catches on fire, there is literally no one planetside who could legally raise a hand to help us, if they wanted their funding next year? Or that if one of my own goes in for wounds she got because the only thing the poor girl didn’t enjoy with a kind partner was godsdamn blood play, there’s not a hospital in governed space to take her in without losing their license?”

“Fuck,” Fray says. She sinks back down on the stool. It’s not often she feels insignificant and powerless, but against the thought of thousands of innocents dying of their willingness to please—she’s a drop in the maelstrom.

“I’m not even allowed a few bouncers to keep things from going too far. Guests aren’t paying for sex, they’re paying for ‘privacy and discretion.’ At least, that’s the language on the hundred-odd forms each worker has to fill out. I make them all train hard at self-defense, pain management, but…”

Urand realizes he’s still holding Fray’s finished drink. He pauses and studies her, all of his attention dragged from his speech and brought to bear on her. It’s soft and intense and she squirms under it. Then, nodding to himself as if his observation gave him clarity, he chooses a very thin slice of candied lemon rind, parts the middle halfway with his sharp fingernails, and sets it on the edge of the glass.

“But it’s not always enough,” he finishes meaningfully, setting the glass and its condensation before Fray with a tiny bow.

She swirls the glass, sniffs the whiskey. It’s earthy, tangy, heady. She takes a sip and it dances across her tongue. By the time she sets the glass back down, she has her words again. “Anything the Shames can do?”

His sigh is so soft she glances up to make sure she heard it. “No. Not right now.” He catches her eye when he says that, and she nods, understanding. Maybe later. “Not unless you feel like going into politics. Maybe you could put a convincingly pretty face on the kinds of arguments that make a brothel owner look real bad.”

Fray twists her face into something horrifying. Urand recoils, but recovers admirably. “Gods. Fuck that,” Fray says. “Never. I may have sold my soul to be a pirate, but I couldn’t destroy it to be a politician.” She tosses down another sip of the whiskey.

Urand smiles. “Yeah. There’s my girl.”

She lets “my girl” slide.

“I’m glad we stopped in,” she says, in a mild voice that betrays none of the true reasons she and the Shames are here on his little off-map world. Though, of course, she assumes he knows what those reasons are. Breth Urand does not let much go unnoticed on his turf. Never has.

“I’m glad you stopped in, too,” he says, his manner equally mild.

He does know.

The whiskey has set in. Her senses hum with contentment. She’s willing to consider the possibilities of the evening.

But then someone jostles her elbow aggressively, and before she can do more than assess the threat level (two humans, one knife, one gun, a couple of potential hidden weapons), Fray has her knife out and at the throat of her attacker.

Only her knife isn’t at the attacker’s throat, it’s crossed against the attacker’s own blade, a good six inches from both throats involved.

The other’s is a rather gorgeous throat, Fray registers.

She also registers that the person—a human woman with hungry eyes and an efficient haircut—is acting a lot less like an attacker and a lot more like someone who accidentally antagonized a pirate.

Without relenting her grip on her knife, Fray drops back down on her heels. “It appears we may have ourselves a misunderstanding.”

“Seems we may, ma’am.” The woman’s voice is high but not shrill. She tips her chin at Fray’s blade, giving no ground either. “Obsidian, yeah?”

“Made it myself,” Fray says with a nod. She’s annoyed; the deference with which the woman called her “ma’am” stirred something she prefers not be stirred right this moment. Fray gives the other woman a sweeping once-over and confirms her fear: this little stranger is exactly her type.

She berates herself internally, trying to ignore how impressed she is by the woman’s resolve and surprising strength. Bad news. Never let yourself be attracted to the enemy.

Though, if she’s honest, nothing the woman has done so far has really screamed enemy. The woman’s companion, too, is clearly relaxed, even as their partner is crossing swords with a pirate captain. This wasn’t a threat to begin with, Fray realizes. She forces herself to relax.

In her peripheral, the tension drains out of Urand’s shoulders and he moves to take the companion’s drink order.

Fray coughs as imperiously as she can muster. “Yes. Well.” She nods deeply and drops her arms.

The woman is ready and doesn’t fall forward, transferring the energy she’s been holding ready in her forearms into sheathing her knife with a flourish. She extends a small, smooth hand. “Sorry about that, ma’am. I’m Dragon.”

That little thrill runs through Fray again as she grasps Dragon’s fingers, and she waves her free hand to distract herself. “All’s well, Dragon.”

Dragon clears her throat. “I, uh, I know who you are. I, ah… I spotted you when we walked in. Made the mistake of telling Dog I’d always thought you and I would make good small talk.” She jerks her thumb over her shoulder at her companion, who waves with their glass. “My asshole partner thinks it’s funny to literally shove me into strangers when I say I’m too coward to make conversation. Guess they didn’t reckon it might get me killed.” This last over her shoulder and through her teeth. Dragon grimaces, then looks back at Fray through the long hair falling over her left eye. “Sorry again if I hurt you.”

“No wounds. Just… I admit, I’m a bit edgy at the moment,” Fray says. She tips her chin upward at Dragon’s companion. “Dog.”

“Regent,” Dog says, raising their glass again.

Fray looks down at Dragon. Then back to Dog. She perches on her stool, cupping her chin in her hand. She studies them both once more. Neither flinches under her gaze.

The gang is going to kill her for this. But they need bodies. And these two are more than capable bodies.

“So,” Fray says, already wondering how much she’ll regret the words, “have you ever considered a career in piracy?”


Thanks to owly9 for the source image. Wallscreens, the UEE, and all elements of Star Citizen belong to Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium.

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