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At a Disadvantage
Posted on April 27th, 2021 by Hannah Ziredac and Venya Kashar

“Alright, Ms. Ziredac, come on back whenever you’re ready.”

Hannah peeled back one cucumber eyepatch to see Hitomi standing in the doorway to the massage room, which was already bathed in low light and some unfamiliar exotic incense. “You’re a prince, Hitomi,” she said. 

From below her the pedicurist, Chéma, said, “Good timing. I’m all done here,” and slipped Hannah’s feet into soft, warm slippers. Chéma stood up, asked if Hannah needed a refill on her Denobulan mimosa, and went to fetch it at Hannah’s emphatic affirmative. 

While she was gone Hannah checked her PADD, saw a message from Billoc that the transaction was finalized, and the package was en route to the Skylark. Threefold victory: brand new algorithm for hacking her way out of sticky situations like the FSA, newly scrambled registry so she wouldn’t get snagged the femtosecond she crossed into Federation space, and, most importantly, the last expenditure of Géra Daviau’s latinum. 

Refuge never failed to deliver.

Hannah downed her second mimosa, slipped Chéma a more-than-generous tip, and floated off for Hitomi’s massage table. 

Hitomi said, “Okay, are we taking the usual focus on your neck and midback?”

“Right on the money, Hitomi. My shoulders have been tensed up to ear-level for weeks.”

Hitomi smiled, nodded. “Alright, well, I’ll step out for a moment. You know the drill: strip to your level of comfort, climb under the sheet, and we’ll start face-down.”

“Thanks, can’t wait.”

Hannah let fall her robe, climbed onto the massage table, and set her face into the cushion attachment at the end, pulling the sheet up to her lower back. Already the strange but soothing aromas and ambient music were calming her mind beyond what a full mani-pedi, facial, and two mimosas could accomplish. She took a deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth, becoming conscious of her spinal alignment and all the muscles in her limbs. 

The door whispered open and Hitomi’s footfalls fell soft on the rug. Hannah took another deep anticipatory breath, though as she did her head took on a sudden lightness. That’s a second mimosa for you, she thought. But as Hitomi’s hands touched the space between her spine and shoulder blades, Hannah knew at once that they weren’t Hitomi’s hands at all. And the new fogginess in her brain wasn’t just the sparkling wine. 

Hannah froze, her breaths coming shallow.

“My apologies, dear, but Hitomi was double-booked. I will be handling your massage today,” said the unknown masseuse, her voice quiet as she leaned down to speak closer to Hannah’s ear. “My name is Venya. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?” It wasn’t really a question; of course, Venya knew perfectly well that everyone within hundreds of light-years had heard of her. “Please, relax and enjoy the massage while we have a little talk.”

Oh fuck. “Uh…Hi, Venya. Lady Venya. Lady Kashar?” Hannah’s heart jumped from a moderato to a presto, seeming to jump five or ten beats per minute with every passing second. This is weird and scary and I should be thinking that it’s weird and scary in a bad way, but I’m not, oh god, oh christ. “How, uh, what…? How can I…? What do you…? Okay, you’re actually not half bad at this. The massage. I’m extremely uncomfortable and I don’t know what to say, and I’m not used to that.”

“Thank you! I do try to stay practiced, you know. Oh, and for the purposes of this conversation, please, call me Venya. After all, who needs such formalities in such a situation, hmm?” Venya dipped her fingers in a bit more of the warm, lavender-scented oil and continued working on the muscles of Hannah’s upper back as she continued, “Now, you have no need to be uncomfortable around me, especially if your answers to my questions are satisfactory. Of course, I’m aware that I have you at a disadvantage, especially given your lack of weaponry, escape opportunity, or even clothing, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Well, that, and to give you a good massage, assuming that our little chat is a pleasant one; after all, my reputation as a hostess is always at stake. Does that make you feel any better, Hannah?”

It sure-as-fuck did not, but Hannah felt compelled to say, “Sure. What, uh, what questions did you…?”

“Word reached my ears, as it tends to do, that a fairly prominent man by the name of Géra Daviau was deprived of a large quantity of latinum, and shortly afterwards, I noticed you show up at Refuge and spend quite a lot more than you normally do… in the form of latinum. Now, Hannah, I usually don’t ask questions about where the people here get their funds.” With a flippant laugh, Venya continued, “And I certainly don’t want to know, in most cases, including this one!”

Venya began to dig the heel of her palm into a knotted muscle of Hannah’s back, applying enough pressure to be slightly painful, but in such a way that would normally be indistinguishable from a regular massage, if this were a regular massage. Her tone started to lose its frivolity as she worked on the knot. “What I need to be certain of is that you have not put Refuge in danger by, say, fleeing directly here while being followed by Federation authorities, for whatever reason they might be interested in you.”

Hannah winced at the extra pressure, though would later say she probably needed it. “I’m not new to Refuge and the Fleets, Venya,” she said, dulling the edge of every word before it left her teeth. “I know how to shake a tail. Plus, I… Well, I’ll just say I’m extra confident that I didn’t bring any heat down on Refuge.”

The moment she said it, she wished the universe had a rewind button.

“Oh, you are? Well, then, that is wonderful news!” As Venya’s tone began to return to normal, she finished working away the knot and eased the pressure from her hands, matching the intensity of the massage with her need to impress the gravity of the situation upon Hannah. “I’m glad that you are confident. Whatever you do, and however you do it, please ensure that confidence in your methods remains justified. After all, the Second Rule of Refuge is not one to forget, is it, Hannah?”

The Orion woman re-oiled her hands and began to firmly push them down Hannah’s spine, one on either side, through the small of her back and to the sheet covering her rear before starting back up toward her neck. Hannah’s response had mostly allayed her concerns, but those who had attracted enough of her attention to warrant a personal meeting would sometimes let slip information they meant to keep secret as these conversations continued, both from the influence of her pheromones and as they started to feel more comfortable in her presence. Keeping her voice friendly despite the extra pressure she was applying, Venya added, “I must also compliment the directness of your answer; that certainly takes a bit of courage around me, or so I have been told. Such honesty will serve you well in this conversation.”

Hannah smirked into the face cushion. “Yeah, my directness gets me into all manner of trouble, good and bad. Is that all you needed to know? Because, no offense, but I was really kinda looking forward to Hitomi’s work, specifically. He knows how to pull me apart and put me back together.”

“Mm, is that so? What a shame.” Venya’s black lips formed a mock pout as she continued, “No offense taken, of course, since Hitomi is a master of his craft, and he also takes wonderful care of me, from time to time. But,” Venya punctuated as she briefly paused upon reaching the sheet once again, “I suppose that you must not want to discuss a potential job opportunity for someone so adept at… shaking her tail?” She continued back up Hannah’s spine, spreading the pressure from her hands outward as she went, lingering on her mid-back as she had requested. “I certainly understand.”

It wasn’t only the prospect of a job that gave Hannah pause. Those Orion pheromones were no joke, and from the holos of Venya she had seen, Hannah knew that she was buck-nude in the same room as a painfully hot woman who was asserting more dominance than Hannah was accustomed to. 

She said, “Do you massage and offer jobs to every potential threat to Refuge security, or…?”

“Of course not, dear, that would be silly.” Venya’s hands continued making their way up Hannah’s back as she spoke, eventually settling in to work on her shoulders for a bit. “When I need to have a conversation like this, I tailor it to the person to be the most effective way to send my intended message. For you, Hannah, this seemed to be the best approach, and you know, I do think that I caught you at least somewhat off-guard. Those that do not provide satisfactory answers sometimes can simply…” Venya leaned down to Hannah’s ear and softly whispered, “vanish.” After a pregnant pause, she continued, “But, those that satisfy my curiosity are always shown Refuge’s full hospitality, thus ensuring their desire to remain welcome here along with their knowledge that my protection of this place and its people, including them, is fierce and absolute.”

The stress on the word vanish got Hannah’s hackles up. With a woman like Venya, Hannah wouldn’t be surprised if she already knew something about the nature of Hannah’s recent escape from the FSA and the Meridian. But Hannah couldn’t afford to show more of her hand than was called, so she simply asked, “What’s the job?”

Venya began to rub the back of Hannah’s neck with practiced, strong fingers and, as she took in a breath to begin filling Hannah in on the details of the job, an alarm shattered the peace of the usually serene room. Refuge’s Harbormistress instead reached for a towel and calmly wiped the oil off her hands as an announcement declared that a Xovul fleet was inbound; Venya now suddenly found herself at a disadvantage, and that was no longer a position she was accustomed to. She tossed the towel aside and addressed Hannah, “Find me after this and we’ll talk. Stay and help if you want, since against the Xovul, we will need everyone.” 

The headiness lingered as reality elbowed its way back into Hannah’s brain. She pushed herself up and off the table, uncaring for her immodest state as she fetched her robe. “I have a ship,” she said, following Venya out of the room. “Can’t take a battleship head-on or anything, but she’s got some fancy toys. I’m not a fighter, so much, but I’m at your disposal.”

“Thank you, Hannah. That attitude will get you far here, since our ability to band together in times of crisis has made Refuge and the Free Fleets into what we are today. Even a Xovul dreadnought can fall to a coordinated attack from smaller ships. Use the nearby asteroids to your advantage… and look for us to broadcast intelligence on their weak points that we have obtained from some friends.” As they walked out of the spa, Venya willed herself to not show just how frightened the idea of losing Refuge to the Xovul made her, not to mention dying by their hands. Right now, her people needed their leader to be confident and in command, so that’s what she would be.

One might have expected the promenade to be in a state of panic from such an announcement, but as the two women emerged from the spa, merchants were quickly locking up their shops and people were moving to their battlestations or individual ships in an orderly fashion that few would expect from such a disparate population. Refuge was Lady Venya Kashar’s, but it was also their livelihood, and many of the itinerant traders would fight alongside the formal Free Fleet defenders to protect it.

Before they would have parted ways, Venya spoke up once more. “Do what you can, but stay alive, Hannah. That job does need to get done, and besides, it would be a shame for anything to happen to someone so skilled and promising.” With a gesture of a finger accompanied by her violet eyes down and back up the human woman’s form, which had not escaped the ever-observant Venya’s notice when Hannah had gone to retrieve her robe, she added, “Not to mention someone so lovely. Good luck!”

“Wait! If you can put me in contact with your tactical, uh, whoevers, I might have an idea on how I can help. Almost literally a cloak-and-dagger move.” Hannah perked an eyebrow so hard that only the galaxy’s least-intelligent would miss her subtext, and she took Venya to be far above that rung.

Lady Venya Kashar pursed her lips slightly and settled a hand on her waist while briefly considering the offer, a welcome distraction from her fear of facing this attack. Hannah seemed eager to ingratiate herself, and if nothing else, it would serve as an extended job interview. “Alright, my dear Ms. Ziredac; come with me, and show me what you can do.”

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  • Emilaina Acacia says:

    Ooh, a meeting of two paragons. I found this really interesting, I wasn’t expecting these two to meet but it makes for a good bit of intrigue. I’m interested in what happens next to Refuge. The massage was a nice setting for these two. Good work!

  • Scott Ammora says:

    I love the interplay between the characters. I love your cliffhangers too. And the interlacing of stories – superb! I enjoyed reading this!

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