{4} Riph

No matter which way Riph turns, there’s a beautiful girl.

It’s an improvement over a few minutes ago, when there was only one beautiful girl. Said beauty seemed very interested in taking him back to her private tall grass island, but casually dropped a line about summoning her friends to make it a party, if Riph was willing to wait.

Oh, Riph was willing to wait, and it’s been almost an hour now. He sits sprawled in a luxurious armchair, and every time he blinks, there’s another fine thigh or shapely ankle or, gods be praised, a sexy bare back.

After the grimy, uncaring interior of the Starfarer, it’s a kind of Heaven.

Must’ve done something alright, Riph thinks, tucking his hands behind his head. Then he thinks better of it and, rolling his shoulders as if stretching, he puts his arms around the two women perched on either side of him. Universe be praised. They snuggle close and he half-closes his eyes, slipping into a lazy fantasy involving three tongues…

“Hello, tall friend!”

The unexpected greeting jolts Riph out of his daydream, into a reality of buggy eyes goggling and spidery fingers twisting. The girls are recoiling—no matter, it’s into Riph’s considerable arms. He hugs them close and makes sure the intruder registers his incredulous once-over.

The man’s probably sixty-odd, his back and shoulders visibly warped by time even in his corrective reinforced suit, and he’s got talkative hands that whisper contradictions to what his lopsided mouth says. He’s wearing a chestpack, the kind tourists use to keep their hard cash and souvenirs safe from pickpockets. He’s got a long pipe, a sash, and a big, scraggly white beard.

And, most importantly, no weapons that Riph can see, besides the swashbuckling sword sheathed clumsily right next to the pipe through his sash. It’s clearly for decoration. The man’s harmless enough, a pirate wizard from another era.

Though, if the stiff body language of the women huddled against him is any indication, the intruder’s presence is threatening the fruit of his patience. Riph clears his throat, tossing his head so his dreadlocks gently tickle the girls’ ears.

“Who you looking for, man?” he asks in his disarming drawl.

“Who else, tall friend? You! You I am looking for!” The man’s got a cajoling little wheeze of a voice, and his accent’s thick, but unplaceable. “And you, I think, looking for work, no?”

At that, half of Riph’s brain snaps into business mode. Because work is exactly what Fray asked him to keep an eye out for.

Admittedly, the other half of his brain is still drinking in the gorgeous warmth sprawled to either side of him and trying to manifest this newcomer away.

Riph tips his chin at the man, who takes an uncertain step back. “You got the specialty menu?”

The man’s flint-chip eyes glitter. His hands dance. “Oh. Specialties galore.”

Those words make shiny things dance in Riph’s mind. Anyone who knows about the specialty menu comes to the Damn Shames ready to pay a premium price for premium service. It’s the Easter egg hidden on their Spectrum page. But anybody willing to go far enough to use the word “galore,” now, they have the bottomless chasm kind of credit line.

He can only glow in the imagined praise Fray will bestow on him.

Still, Riph groans as he carefully extricates himself from the protesting women, who claw feebly at his bare chest. “I’m so sorry, ladies,” he says, truly meaning it, blowing them kisses as he sweeps his shirt up off a low table and guides the newcomer to the entryway. “I’ll take you to my leader,” he tells the man, who wrings his hand and nods vigorously.

When Riph looks back at the mossy chamber and the two young women now entangled only in one another, it’s with real regret on his face. In another life, he knows, he’ll be guided to meet at least one of those two lovelies again. He just wishes he’d been guided to really get to know both of them in this life.

The universe’s endless sense of justice will reward this eventually, he tells himself like a mantra, and rushes through the woven grass passageway before he can change his mind.

“So!” The man is there, in his face again, as soon as Riph is outside the entertainment area. “You are taking me to your leader, no?”

“No. I mean, yeah,” Riph says, tugging on his beard. “Taking you to Fray, yeah. Come on. She’s probably at the bar.”

He’s right, of course. He’s always right about Fray; he knows her better than anyone, can read her moods and whims from miles away.

When Riph and the stranger come around the copse of purple trees growing along the side of the bar, Fray is just dropping off her seat and throwing a flirtatious laugh over her shoulder at the other two people at the counter.

Riph immediately focuses on the pair. It isn’t hard to see why Fray’s chosen these two to flirt with, but there’s something else about their manner with her, a quick and cool familiarity, perhaps even a shared goal. She’s decided to trust them. Already.

The one closest to Fray, the woman, has an easy smile under that sharp shock of black hair, but her eyes are hard and always roving. Nothing in the room is lost on her. The other person has the look of one practiced at deception; the light shifting across their features gives the impression of many masks slipping on and off. But something tells Riph it isn’t the Shames who need to fear the couple’s collective power, which he can sense rolling off them in aggressive waves. Instinct relaxes his shoulders, loosens his body language.

Fray spots Riph and waves him in, and he gestures for the strange man to go ahead of him. “Regent,” Riph said casually, “this man here says he’s got specialties galore.”

The man presses his hands together under his chin, his fingers still weaving in and out of one another. “Perhaps we do not discuss here? Tall friend did not mention…” He looks pointedly past Fray at the two at the counter, who Riph notices have turned and are facing the little scene with pointed stances.

He feels safer already. The pair could take out a would-be assassin long before he reached Fray. They would, too, from the looks of it. Not bad for a couple of strays.

Riph crosses his arms to catch their gazes, and in the split second that they grant him their attention, he gives them an appreciative nod. The woman’s lips quirk in a self-satisfied smile, even as her gaze snaps back to Fray and the stranger. Riph likes her already.

Fray, for her part, has the stranger’s full attention. Her hair’s a vivid purple in this light, falling over the unshaven side of her head. She looks every inch the pirate queen. As always, Riph aches a little to look at her.

Tall friend here did not mention them because tall friend did not know about them,” Fray is saying to the stranger. “What you say to me, you say to my people.”

The pirate wizard man bows and bobs. Riph snorts as he’s reminded of a fishing lure. “Yes, pirate lady. We will do what you say. But perhaps to discuss in private…?”

Fray narrows her eyes. “You said specialties galore, eh? Riph?” She tips her chin at her Proxregent.

“Galore,” he repeats, raising his eyebrows.

Fray sighs and folds her arms across her chest. “Breth, is there anywhere we could go that’s a bit less…obvious?”

The bartender, who’s clearly been eavesdropping, jerks and nods. “There’s, ah, a group room. I’ll let you in. Usually parties of eight or more only.”

Fray chuckles. “Oh, there’s more than eight of us.” She makes a familiar motion to Riph, a scoop of an invisible spoon to her mouth. Without thinking about it, he reaches down into the back of his pants and presses the small button sewn into the hidden pocket. Calling all Shames. It’ll gently broadcast Riph’s location to the crew over the next thirty minutes. He and Fray both have one, and they usually use it to summon everyone to dinner. Riph can also turn up the urgency of the signal, in an emergency, but he’s only ever had to do that three times in his six years as a Shame.

Riph takes the rear and Fray takes the front of the pack, in a show of goodwill, with the pirate wizard man and the two assassin types in the middle. Riph finds himself rubbernecking at the crystal-hewn hallways; the pond of glowing, translucent fish; and more of those shapely legs and arms and backs, glimpses of them between the foliage. He’s on alert, like a good mercenary ought to be in a brothel, but the Spyglass is a truly remarkable place.

It’s strikingly similar to the Heavens Riph has seen.

Ahead, the way forward grows dark, but there’s a bold reddish light at the end of it. “I’m Dragon,” a high voice murmurs very near Riph’s ear, and he realizes the woman has dropped back to speak with him. He gives her a sideways look of assessment.

“Dragon, eh? And the other one?”

“Dog. My spouse. Fray just hired us. Hope that’s alright.” She’s blunt, but not without social graces. Riph’s a fan.

“Fine by Fray, fine by me,” he says. He means it. That’s how he’s stayed alive this last half-decade.

The bartender’s massive silhouette blocks out the light momentarily as he stands in front of the windowed door, waving his wrist across the scanlock. Then the door swings open and he steps inside, allowing the crimson light to pour in and nearly blind them all.

Dog darts through the little group and is the first to enter, and Riph realizes the way Dog’s holding their hands means they’ve got some sort of stun weapon on them. They turn, their big dark eyes gleaming. “All clear, cap’n,” Dog says to Fray.

She rewards Dog with a smile that makes Riph’s heart squeeze. “Appreciate it.” She steps past them, and Riph is quick to follow

He lets out a low whistle that ends in a chuckle. “This is quite a conference room, man,” he says to their host, who grunts his appreciation.

Fray sweeps up to the bartender, chest-first. He’s clearly as pleased as Riph would be at her nearness. “Not that I didn’t trust you to sweep my room, Breth,” Fray says in her seductive purr, “but as a leader of pirates, there’s a good chance on any given planet that someone would like to kill me, and I can’t leave my safety to chance.”

“Of course not,” the big man says with a half-bow that might be sincere. “I’ll leave you all to your…discussion. Please—don’t clean up after yourselves.” He says it with a twinge that tells Riph there’s quite the unfortunate tale behind that request, and then with another, deeper bow, he leaves the room. The lock clicks softly behind him.

Riph takes up a post in the pile of overstuffed pink and red cushions resting against the wall beside the door. From here, he can see all the way around Fray, and has at least a half-view of everyone else in the room. He’s not picking up any truly dangerous vibes, but… Just in case.

He’s never seen a room quite like this one, either. The wall panels provide the barest suggestion of being hidden compartments and drawers, only one of which is open to reveal its bounty: phallic objects in a mind-boggling variety of sizes. The room is lit a deep red, which makes all of them look a touch inhuman. It’s a levelling effect, Riph realizes.

Before he can really settle in, there’s a rap on the door. Riph rolls off his cushions and into a calculated lean against the door, his eye to the peephole.

Kin’s white tuft of hair, so stark against its much darker brethren, is unmistakable. Riph opens the door, peering around it. “You’re allowed in, I s’pose.”

“My immense thanks,” Kin says with a sniff that implies his thanks may not be that immense, especially not when he takes in the room with its bright red love cushions and its three rope swings. He makes as if to storm to the seat beside Fray, but the sight of so many strangers pulls him up short. To Riph’s amusement, Kin mirrors Riph’s cross-armed lean and tries to make his tone conspiratorial. “So, who are these people?”

“Tarsus is your name for me, yes?” the pirate wizard man says as Riph opens his mouth to answer Kin. “I think you are not needing any other names.”

“We will see about that,” Fray says, tipping her head back so she’s looking down her nose. Riph thinks it’s a good look. “So, Tarsus. What exactly do you have for us?”

“Ah-ah,” Tarsus says, plucking his pipe off his belt and securing a toasted leaf of some sort from the pouch on the opposite side. “Tarsus needs names first. Tall friend, we start with you.” Riph points at himself and Tarsus’s gravelly laugh slithers around the room. “Yes, tall friend, we start with you.” He lights the pipe and puffs on it three times, very carefully. “Yes. Now. You go.”

“Riph,” Riph says. “Proxregent.” He indicates the room with his big hands. “These are the Damn Shames.”

“This is known, yes,” Tarsus says, tucking the end of the long, thin pipe in the side of his mouth, “or Tarsus would not come to Spyglass Tavern.”

“Too good for the Spyglass?” Fray asks. There’s another knock on the door, and Riph lets Froggy and his pal Devith into the room. As usual, they pair off to sit on top of one another.

Riph narrows his eyes at the group. The only ones missing are that punk kid Avi, and Rahab. If they don’t show up in the next fifteen, he and Kin will go on a stroll of the facilities.

Tarsus laughs his gravelly laugh again. “Not too good. Not wanting to be dead, yes? This is Silver territory.”

Riph feels the temperature change in the room, and it’s not hard to identify the source. Dragon and Dog have gone steely silent, pretending not to be listening hard to Tarsus’s every word. Riph wonders what their connection is to the dubious business empire.

Another knock. This time, it’s Rahab, her clothes rumpled, her boots half-laced. She glowers at Riph and shoves past him when he tries to offer her a spot between himself and Kin on the cushions. Riph chuckles. He loves that fiery little fool.

“Now. Names.” Tarsus points at Kin, leaning forward. “You next, large friend.”

“Large?” Kin starts to protest, but Riph elbows him sharply in the side. Huffing for his breath, Kin chokes out, “Kinnon Hanford. Starfield Admiral, if you’re looking for a military rank.”

“Fray’s bitch, if you’re looking for his real title,” Rahab pipes up, sticking out her tongue at Kin’s horrified expression. She’s sitting close enough to Froggy and Devith to see what their hands are up to, but not close enough for them to pull her in. She raises her hand and looks to Tarsus. “Rahab. Gunner. Master-at-arms. Friendly neighborhood firebrand.”

The old man shows his teeth to her and chuckles into his pipe. “Good, yes. Tarsus is thinking this is good quality in pirate.”

The others introduce themselves—Froggy, Devith, Dragon, Dog. Riph notices Dragon and Dog are careful to just call themselves hired guns; he’ll have to ask later what their real specialties are.

Finally, Tarsus sits back with a nod. “Good. Yes. Acceptable pirates, you are. The job, now, the job is simple,” he says, “but not easy.”

“I’ll decide what the job is,” Fray cuts in. “And I’ll need a few more details before I can accept your money or kick you out of the orgy room.”

“Yes, yes, this is known,” Tarsus says mildly. He draws deeply on the pipe and blows it in Fray’s face. Then his expression hardens, and he’s no longer the old man with the disarming chestpack and bodysuit, he’s a tough-as-nails warrior who will give no quarter if he’s crossed. “I need small team, six, eight, maybe. Ten is too much. I have object of extreme value. You, I think, do not let it fall into Silver hands.” He leans back against the many-barred chair, which Riph is sure has seen quite a few ropes in its day. “That is all of mission. Here to there, one trip, boom.” He illustrates the last by making his fist explode.

Fray studies Tarsus without saying a word, and he isn’t saying a word either. Practiced killers, sizing one another up. Tarsus has a tiny smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

“Will warn you, they are not morons you will deal with,” he says at last.

“I know that,” Fray says, her voice low. Riph leans forward to hear her. “So let me get this straight. We take your…objects, keep a low profile, make a delivery. And you—what? Run off in the other direction and create a diversion? What exactly is at stake if we got caught here?”

Tarsus gently clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth, regaining some of his wizard grandfatherliness. Smoke billows around his face. “Many questions you have. Perhaps Tarsus will answer all in one swooping fowl.”

The odd metaphor makes Riph stumble over comprehension of the old pirate’s words. Frowning, he uncrosses his legs and shifts into a ready stance, for no reason he can point to. Beside him, Kin rolls his shoulders so that Riph can hear the gentle buzz of the other’s chainmail suit.

“Yes, tall friend, big friend, it is good to be prepared.” Even though Tarsus’s back is half-turned to the door and the two men, he addresses them directly in his friendly, wheedling way. “Much is at stake, yes. It will do you well and it will do well your Princess to be on high alert. No one is barring holds now.”

Then he says eight words that thicken Riph’s blood and disrupt the fabric of time in the room.

“Not with the treasure of Chalcedon so near.”


Thanks to Len Radin for the source image. The Spectrum and all elements of Star Citizen belong to Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium.

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