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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
The Princess awakens . . .
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 2457 RATING: 9 SERIES: FIREFLY
The Treasure of Lei Fong Wu
Chapter Forty Seven
GAMMA TEAM -57.19
“So. Are we gonna wake her up, then?” Mal asked quietly.
“Do you know how?” Inara replied, also quietly.
“I woke River up,” he reminded her.
“You opened a box,” she corrected him.
“She woke up,” he pointed out.
“You opened a box,” she repeated with exaggerated patience.
“So maybe we should open up this one,” he suggested.
“This isn’t a just a box,” she observed.
“Yeah, it’s round,” he observed.
“It’s a delicate piece of equipment,” she insisted.
“That’s lasted at the core of a gas giant for a hundred years,” he countered.
“Inside the toughest warship ever built,” she reminded.
“But she’s still alive,” he pointed out.
“But you could kill her trying to wake her up improperly,” she predicted.
“How hard could it be?” he speculated.
“Do I really need to answer that?” she said, rolling her eyes.
“It couldn’t be that hard, or there would . . . be a sign,” he decided.
“A sign? Saying ‘don’t wake occupant unless you know how?’” she proposed skeptically.
“Yeah, a sign. The lack of one is indicative of an uncomplicated process,” he pronounced.
“And you run a spaceship,” she said in mock disbelief.
“Can’t be that hard,” he determined, ignoring the dig.
“Apparently not. But this might be. It’s a complicated piece of medical equipment, not a rattletrap transport,” she scoffed.
“Hey! That’s Serenity you’re talkin’ about!” he objected.
“And its this hibernation chamber and this young woman’s life I’m talking about, too!” she insisted. “These things haven’t been in general service for years!”
“It has lots of easy-to-read buttons on the front,” he perceived.
“That you don’t how to use,” she corrected.
“You position finger, like this, and push in a pointedly direction, thusly,” he demonstrated.
“I still think you could kill her. Better to wait for someone . . . better,” she advised.
“I think they probably built these things to open easy, like a beer can,” he supposed.
“And how is this thing even remotely like a beer can?” she riposted.
“Well, it is round,” he offered.
“And to think I doubted your technical competence,” she pronounced.
“It shouldn’t be that hard to open a can,” he decided.
“She’s not a beer, she’s a girl,” she corrected.
“A very, very pretty girl,” he observed.
“Who has been asleep for a hundred years,” she added.
“That’s got to be disconcerting,” he agreed.
“Perhaps traumatic. Especially if you kill her in the process,” she determined.
“Beats bein’ an icy corpse for all of eternity,” he countered.
“She would be an icy corpse for all of eternity if you killed her,” she noted.
“She’ll end up that way anyway if we don’t make it to the Engine Room soon,” he decided.
“You have a point,” she conceded.
“And they must have built these things for a rapid rethaw, in case of emergency,” he speculated.
“That is possible,” she acknowledged, reluctantly.
“And it sure would be helpful to have a native guide about now,” he continued.
“Her perspective could be valuable,” she agreed.
“And she is so very pretty,” he concluded.
“And you are such an unbelievable pig,” she noted.
“I really don’t want to kill her, though,” he amended.
“Then don’t stand too close to her after she wakes up,” she sniffed.
“And it could be dangerous. She could be some kind of assassin,” he conjectured.
“Now you’re just being silly. Who would turn a seventeen year old girl into an assassin?” she reasoned.
“It could happen,” he defended. “She took out Shan Yu. She could try to kill us all.”
“You do bring that out in people, don’t you?” she concluded.
“It’s been said,” he conceded.
There was a long pause, as both of them regarded the hibernation chamber and its youthful occupant.
“So. Are we going to wake her up or what?” Inara finally said.
“Yeah,” Mal agreed, and started pressing buttons. “Why don’t you call for Johnny and Book, in case that whole assassin thing happens?”
Inara did that while the lights on the front of the chamber started switching from red to green. In about three minutes the last one made the transition, and the chamber hissed as the door opened slightly.
In moments the girl’s body started to slip to the floor. Mal was quick enough to gather her up. She seemed almost childlike in his big arms.
“She’s nekkid,” he observed with a grunt.
“No, she’s nude,” corrected Inara with annoyance.
“There’s a difference?” he asked, confused.
“Of course,” she snapped, checking the woman’s pulse at her neck and wrists. There was a pause as Mal transferred her to the big bed.
“Well, what is it?” he finally asked Inara.
“What? Oh. Nude is when you are unclothed. Naked is when you are unclothed when you should be clothed. ‘Nekkid’ is when you are unclothed and up to something.”
“They teach that at whore’s school?” Mal asked, eyebrow’s raised.
“First day,” Inara said, darkly.
“So, did I kill her?”
“Surprisingly, no,” the Companion said, sitting on the edge of the bed and pulling a robe she took from the closet over the girl. “She seems to be coming back.”
“Told you so,” he muttered.
“Just because it worked doesn’t mean it was a good idea,” she chided.
“Mal, I think we just found our way through – hey!” Johnny declared as he entered the room and saw an intensely attractive young Sinic woman dressed in a very loose bathrobe on a supremely decadent bed. “Am I dreaming?” he asked after a few shocked moments. “Or is it my birthday?”
“No, this young lady is Nyan Nyan,” Inara said quietly. “We found her in hibernation in here. We just woke her up.”
Johnny never took his eyes off of her. “You sure she doesn’t need a kiss or anything to wake up?” he inquired with interest. “I’d be happy to volunteer.”
“No, I don’t think that will be necessary, or—”
The young woman suddenly sat up and vomited spectacularly all over the splendidly white bedspread.
“— particularly wise,” Inara finished. Johnny hurriedly dropped his gun on a nearby chair and grabbed a towel, helping Nyan Nyan clean up as she sputtered and coughed. Inara was ready with a fresh robe, and Mal offered the young woman his canteen to clear her mouth.
“Thank you,” she whispered hoarsely after she had drank her fill. She coughed a few times before she continued, suspiciously. “Who are you people?”
“I’m Captain Reynolds, this is Inara Serra, and that young man who is staring so intently down your bathrobe is Johnny. Johnny Lei. Lei Chin Yi.”
At the mention of the name the girl instantly looked up. “Lei? You are Fong Wu’s son?”
“Uh, not quite,” Johnny admitted. “Distant relation. Descendent. He’s my great, great, great, great grand-uncle, or something like that. I never got that quite worked out.”
“But . . .” she began, clearly confused. “How long have I been asleep?”
“At least a century,” Mal supplied. “I’m sure we can get the exact figure later.”
“A . . . century?” she asked, shocked. “Over a hundred years?”
“At least,” agreed Inara, sympathetically. “Our story is pretty simple: Johnny over there hired us to help him and his uncles recover a treasure his ancestor, Emperor Lei Fong Wu, hid. This ship turned out to be the treasure. Finding you was incidental to that.”
“Not that we regret it,” Johnny was quick to add. “But it does beg the question: just who are you?”
“And what were you doing frozen in a closet?” added Mal.
Nyan Nyan looked around at the faces, and a wave of dizziness clouded her own expression for a moment. “I am . . . I am a Companion.”
There was another long silence.
“A . . . Companion?” Inara asked, shocked. “I’m a Companion. Of what Mother House?”
“The Hanjing House, in the Valley of Paradise on T’ien,” she said after a moment’s thought.
“But there’s no house on . . . oh, liao tien bu – you poor thing, you were Bound?” Inara asked, horrified.
“Yes,” the girl admitted. “I was in training at Hanjing since I was six. I was chosen by His Wisdom, Shan Yu, as a gift for Minister Lei – Emperor Lei, apparently – when I was sixteen. Last year. Or a century ago, apparently. This is so confusing!”
“You poor, poor girl!” Inara said, sweeping Nyan Nyan up in her arms and into a warm embrace. There were tears in her eyes.
“What, um, what’s this being bound stuff?” Mal asked, awkwardly.
Inara looked up at them both, as if it was a crime to be male and they had just been convicted. “I am technically known as a ‘Free Companion’.”
“Which I’m fair certain is not a reference to your rates. And I suppose it means there was some other kind,” Mal said sagely.
“Yes. Long ago the Arts were taught to some who . . . who had no choice in their clients. The girls were given the whole body of work, an extensive education and training, but were forced to . . . service whomever their masters bade. They were Bound to them. Sometimes they used drugs and hypnosis and even worse ways to bind them to their masters. There was no hope of escape. It was a degrading and humiliating thing, and often they would end up in very unpleasant circumstances. They were little more than sex slaves, indentured concubines. They were highly prized living ornaments. The Guild has long worked to make such places illegal. To compel a woman to be a Companion against her will is . . . abhorrent.”
“I can tell,” Mal said, realizing that this was one of those rare occasions when he should perhaps keep his mouth shut about what he thought of the Guild. The look in Inara’s eyes was warning enough.
“So you were given by the Tyrant to . . . my ancestor?” Johnny asked, surprised.
“Yes. Minister Lei was the Warlord’s favorite, a man of exceptional cunning and undying devotion. He was instrumental in preparing the great armada against the Xiao. He administered the great cities of Yuan in support of the war effort. He swore the Oath of Eternal Loyalty, pledging to ever protect and serve Shan Yu. He had uncovered a plot against the Warlord’s life involving some of his most trusted officers.”
“Yet he betrayed Shan Yu, in order to save the Empire,” Lei observed. “And enlisted you to help.”
“It was . . . complicated,” she admitted, drawing her knees up to her chin. “Minister Lei figured that because of who I was, I would have an interest in helping overthrow the Warlord.”
“Who you were?” Johnny asked. “A . . . Bound Companion?”
“No, not because of that, not because of what I do. Because of who I am. Who my parents were.”
“Who were your parents?” Mal asked.
“ ‘Nyan Nyan’ was not my birthname,” she admitted after a moment’s contemplation. “It is a House nickname. A professional name. And it was used to conceal my real lineage, which does not appear on any paperwork. My real name is Hsu Ling. Hue Hsu Ling. My parents were Hue Du Fu and Hue Xiang Cai.”
Inara looked at her confused. Mal was three stops past confused. “I don’t understand,” the Companion said politely.
“Hue . . . wait!” Johnny said. “You mean . . . Crown Prince Hue Du Fu?” he asked, astonished.
Nyan Nyan smiled sadly and nodded. “He was executed by the Warlord. They both were. I was spared . . . and sent to the Hanjing House to await his pleasure.”
“Which means that you are actually . . .” Inara said speculatively.
“Princess Hue Hsu Ling, of the Imperial House of Yuan,” the girl concluded.
Inara nodded, impressed. Johnny just stared, open-mouthed.
“Tzao gao,” Mal whistled. “This job just keeps gettin’ more interestin’ by the moment.”
Book wandered around the room in amazement. It was – well, it wasn’t really a library, even though the walls on three sides were filled with books, many from Earth-That-Was. Nor was it a museum, even though there were four pieces of sculpture and seven display cases filled with artifacts. The banners that hung from the high ceiling were a clue. This was a Trophy Room.
He had discovered it while he and two of the Imperial soldiers were scouting through the lowest sections of this complex. It was well-appointed in red leather and red velvet and dark, dark wood. A “gentleman’s room.” It even held a desk, which qualified it as a Study, but there was precious little incentive to study here. No, the man who built this room wanted it for one reason, and it wasn’t business. It was aggrandizement.
There was enough art here to satisfy the needs of any planetary museum. Ancient bronze swords from the T’ang Dynasty. A precious statue from the early Greek Buddhists, descendents of Alexander’s armies that had settled in the Kashmir Valley, converted to Buddhism, and gave that most Eastern of religions an iconography with a decidedly Western, Classical Greek sensibility. A Gutenberg Bible. A bell from the Titanic. A statue from Mohenjo Daro. Obsidian knives from pre-Columbian Central American empires. A slender and sublimely elegant Ming vase. Two cap-and-ball pistols from the American Civil War, surmounted by a Confederate Cavalry saber. An original copy of Emperor Mao’s Little Red Book. The golden head of an Egyptian sarcophagus. The first working telephone. A jade statue of Amhitaba Buddha that had to weigh thirty pounds. A gold death-mask from ancient Macedonia. An original vinyl analog recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The cap of one of the Exodus Captains. An Al Mansouri commando’s armored helmet from the storming of the Vatican. A cigarette lighter that belonged to Dr. Sun Yat Sen. Action Comics #1. Three cuneiform tablets from Ancient Ur. The space helmets of Yuri Gagarin, John Glen, and Yang Li Wei. Original works by Picaso, Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keefe, DeMartin Pine, and others.
The priceless nature of the collection was only matched by the chaotic nature of its theme. No era in human history, no culture or empire was favored. Every piece in the room had the distinction of being valuable beyond reckoning. The man who assembled this collection had done so not out of a love for collecting or for history. Then man who did this had done it because of a love of having. Of possessing and owning.
It was a shrine to avarice.
While impressed by the depth and dimensions of the pieces, he was shocked and dismayed at what they meant. This was the real Treasure. All of these artifacts. The rest of the ship could be stuffed from bulkhead to bulkhead with gold and platinum, but it still would not equal a fraction of what these cultural artifacts was worth. They belonged in museums, to be shared and shown to all of humanity.
This, Book decided, must be the place where the Tyrant had stacked up the wealth of his slain foes, to drink in the essence of his conquest. Book was disgusted and appalled.
The Tyrant’s greed was legendary, of course. The famous episode, early in the Xiao/Yuan Wars, in which he detailed an entire Imperial company to raid deep behind enemy lines to bring him a painting he coveted . . . Shan Yu’s avarice was dwarfed only by his sadism and cruelty.
Book understood why it was sometimes necessary – to a government – to kill or punish individuals for the good of the State. While he objected to it, this late in life, he understood it implicitly. But to capture whole families and contrive sadistic methods of executing them, all in the name of “observing true human nature” went beyond the expediencies of even the most brutal police states.
At least Lei Fong Wu had tried to put it right. Most of the looted objects he had returned to their rightful owners. This room held the residue of that imperialist aggression.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” asked Fong, one of the soldiers who was sweeping this area.
“In a sick, perverted sort of way, yes,” agreed Book, reluctantly.
“My family was one of the ones the Tyrant persecuted,” Fong continued, setting down his rifle. “My ancestor was the leader of a revolutionary cell that tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the Tyrant. Three generations of my family died at his hands – personally. Tortured to death. They were taken to a space station, then put in an airlock in small groups of four or five. There would be one atmo mask with enough air for a few hours. Then he would start to leak the atmo. He enjoyed watching families – mothers, fathers, daughters and sons – go insane, fighting and sometimes killing each other over the air bottle. He recorded his observations of their behavior and used to write studies. And poetry. About how people turn savage when they are put in savage situations.”
“It’s vile perversion,” the Shepherd said, dully. “I read some of his works . . . before I took holy orders, that is. The man wrote well, and that was almost worse. You would think that the horrors he recounted would be written poorly, not rendered in neat, if florid style.”
“The man was a devil,” agreed Fong. “I hope he rots in whatever hell he was consigned to. I hope my ancestors got an opportunity to vent their displeasure.”
“At least that day is over. God willing, his like will never be seen again.”
“Let us hope so. I’ve always wondered, though: in your religion, a man like the Tyrant, a murderer and genocide, could he still gain absolution through your laws?”
Book considered. It was a tough question, but one that had deep theological roots. Jesus Christ was a Universal Redeemer. Any man, the holy scriptures taught, could repent, confess, and genuinely accept the love and compassion of Jesus into his heart, and receive unconditional love and forgiveness. Oh, the particulars might change from sect to sect, order to order, but that was a near universal of Christian belief.
But Book had always wondered if it were true – or fair. A man might live his whole life virtuously, and die on the same day a horrible sinner who had made a deathbed conversion. According to scripture, both received the same grace from God. It didn’t seem right.
Then again, he hoped in some part of his heart that it was true. For all hearts need forgiveness, and some men’s sins were powerful heavy on their souls. He had labored for years, now, in repentance and atonement for the sins of his own youth. Sins that some would consider every bit as vile as the brutal dictatorship of Shan Yu. He had chosen a life of contemplation and prayer to heal his aching soul, and for a few years his time at the Abbey had been solace enough. He had walked away from his life of sin, pledged to sin no more. He had turned his back on Satan and his lies. Years spent in meditation and contemplation had soothed his soul – but had not healed it.
Could the Blood of the Lamb wash away the stink of sin that clung to Shan Yu’s rotten soul, had he asked and repented? Book counted on it. It was the only chance his own soul had.
“I believe so,” he affirmed after consideration. “At least, that is what our scriptures teach us.”
“Even after suffocating children?”
“That, and worse. Did you find any way through?” Book asked, changing the subject. Death by asphyxiation was horrid, of course – but Shan Yu had found other, even more vile methods of “testing” the human condition that he didn’t want to think about.
“Perhaps,” Fong said, hesitantly. “There is a small security office on this level, and there is a sealed passage that, if the ship’s map is correct, should lead in the direction of the Engine Room. May even be a shortcut. But we cannot get the door open.”
“Why don’t you go tell the Captain?” Book suggested. “Reynolds is adept at getting into places he isn’t supposed to. I’m going to . . . take another look around, see if there’s anything else we missed.”
“Yes, sir,” Fong said, saluting and turning to leave. Book winced. It had been a while – a long, long while – since anyone had saluted him. The memories it returned to him were not happy ones.
He made one last circuit of the big room, examining treasures he hadn’t noticed on his first pass. He was just coming back around to where the Egyptian sarcophagus was when he heard a pistol – large caliber semi-automatic, still smelt of cosmoline – being cocked and placed on the back of his head.
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” he said, politely, as he raised his hands. “Who are you?” he asked the faceless assailant.
“Something you missed,” the man hissed, and struck Book on the back of the neck with the butt of his pistol.
Inara had found Nyan Nyan some clothes that were a decent fit, if not a Companion’s usual style: too big silk pajamas and a robe, tightly belted. Nyan Nyan was more than happy to accompany them out of this section. Johnny took great care to make certain she lacked for nothing. Indeed, he rarely strayed more than five feet from her as they made their way down to the lower levels, where the men had found a potential way through.
“Aw, ain’t that cute,” Mal said to Inara as they hung back a little. “Little Johnny’s all grown up and horny.”
“She’s terribly attractive,” agreed Inara. “Very graceful. A credit to her Housemother.”
“I thought you didn’t like the Bound Companions?”
“I don’t like what was done to them. But many became quite adept at the Art. Some even won their freedom and came to Free houses. Look, he put his hand on her shoulder!”
“Is that some humped-up moon’s idea of a marriage ceremony?” Mal asked, skeptically.
“No, it’s just good basic flirtation. If she’s really good, she’ll do a glance, small smile, toss the hair just a bit, and lay her hand on his . . .”
To Mal’s surprise, Nyan Nyan did every move as if Inara was writing the script. He just shook his head. “It ain’t fair!” he muttered.
“What ‘ain’t fair’?” Inara asked, her smile fading a bit.
“Y’all womenfolk got the whole relationship thing down cold. Don’t leave much room for a fella to maneuver, if you take my meaning. You can tell at a glance what we’re thinking and how to manipulate it. Wave a little cleavage, wiggle your butt, and smile, and most of us just do whatever the hell you want us to. Ain’t fair, y’all can use sex to get what you want like that.”
“It’s not an exclusive trait,” defended Inara. “Men can use sex to get what they want.”
“Sex IS what men want,” he countered.
“Well . . . point taken.”
“I just think it’s an inequality. Y’all can turn a situation around with just the suggestion. Take Kitten up there. Not out of her egg for half an hour, yet, and she’s got poor Johnny followin’ her like he’s on a gorram leash.”
“He doesn’t seem to be complaining,” Inara observed.
“ ‘Course not! Poor boy’s been without any tail since he left home. ‘Less you or River been helpin’ him out.”
“I don’t service crew – or passengers – and you know that. And I’m fair certain River hasn’t pursued him like that.”
“How would you know?”
“Because I’d know about it – probably before they would. An infatuated woman is hard to miss, once you know the signs.”
“And what signs are those?”
“Sorry. Companion secret. I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you in the name of sisterhood.”
“Figgers,” Mal said, sourly. “Most like that boy will get all turned inside out, waitin’ for her to stop teasin’ and start pleasin’. If he don’t get shot up first.”
“Somehow I don’t think so. She is trained . . . I can’t see her putting anything on the table she wouldn’t be willing to deliver. Of course, in her case things might get complicated.”
“You mean the whole waking-up-a-hundred-years-too-late complicated?”
“I mean the last two scions of the last two Imperial Houses of Yuan getting together on anything. It might upset some political apple carts within the Imperial Faction.”
“Ain’t no Imperial Faction no more,” assured Mal. “Just the Tongs, and the Thousand Families. Ain’t no Imperial House. Only the Lei’s. Ain’t no reason in the ‘verse why they shouldn’t be happily-ever-afterin’.”
“They’ve only known each other for twenty minutes, Mal,” Inara chided. “I think it’s a little soon to be picking out baby-names.”
“I’m just sayin’. If they want to court, seems like it should be easy.”
“And I am just saying that a relationship between members of competing regimes may be fraught with difficulty. A working relationship is difficult enough to manage without politics. Look at Wash and Zoe: now imagine all of their issues combined with questions of legitimacy and succession to the throne.”
“Have you considered that it might be a politically good thing that they’re sweet on each other? Assumin’, o’course, that you consider the Imperial Faction alive and well and I ain’t willin’ to make that particular concession but s’possin’ you did, what if a marital union of two royal houses actually strengthens the resolve o’ their people?”
Inara blinked. “Mal, that was a completely cogent and politically astute thought. Have you been drinking?”
“I ain’t a stranger t’politics, if that’s what you’re inferrin’. Early member of the Independent Faction, remember? For the first year, year and a half that’s ‘bout all there was, was politics. I’m just sayin’, should the Lei’s make another run at the Yuanese Empire—”
“—which would have dramatically bad consequences—” Inara interrupted.
“—then havin’ the ringin’ endorsement of their dynastic predecessors may well prove an asset to their cause.”
“You could be right,” Inara agreed, reluctantly, after she got over the shock of Mal’s political astuteness. “They do make an attractive couple. And that’s important to any kind of royal dynasty.”
“Bunch o’ damnfoolishness, ask me,” Mal grumbled. “Why does there need to be a king, or an emperor, or lords ‘n’ ladies? Folk run their business just fine, left to themselves.”
“There are a lot of people think that way. They consider constitutional monarchies as an atavistic holdover from our medieval past. But royal families do lend some important benefits to a world.”
“Name one,” Mal sneered.
“Pretty faces to put on the coins? Please. A monarchy ensures that there is always a head-of-state for a government. It increases the political stability of a world during changes in government. Provides ultimate control over policy decisions. Usually gives the power to remove a really poor prime minister. They appear at ceremonies and disasters, make speeches, entertain the elite, recognize the good, punish the evil, and put a single face on the government.”
“You ain’t sold me yet,” Mal said, shaking his head. “Plenty o’ local folk can do that. Don’t need a metal hat to be important.”
“Monarchs set style in a culture. They set moral and ethical standards. They are the representation of a culture’s hopes and dreams, a living personification of the people.”
“Don’t see why you need a king for that, neither. Folk can figure out their ownselves what necktie to wear.”
“Well . . . here’s an example en extremis – that’s ‘in the extreme’.”
“I knew that!”
“Having a monarchy gives a government a useful scapegoat when things go wrong. When the Hue dynasty, for instance – not to pick on poor Nyan Nyan’s grandfather – when they got pushed into a war with Xiao, he was weak and appointed a poor foreign minister, and a witless war minister, and ignored the matter while he played polo and held dog shows at the palace. He had lost the Mandate of Heaven – Vox Populi, Vox Dei – and the trust of the people. The house of Hue had grown weak. It set the stage for a fairly peaceful palace revolution that could have reinvigorated the dynasty.”
“Why didn’t it, then?”
“Because that bastard Shan Yu stepped in and took over and didn’t proclaim himself Emperor. Unfortunately, he understood all too well the weaknesses of a constitutional monarchy. Instead he founded a military dictatorship while leaving the civil bureaucracy more-or-less intact. In doing so he removed himself from the traditional power structure of the executive. The Mandate had passed, but without an Emperor, with all the trappings of office that you are so quick to ridicule, he was able to rule as a generalissimo.
“Removing a legitimate head of state is easy to do – the people get mad enough and the royal family is usually content to stand aside and let the Mandate pass to a more popular house, or prove they haven’t lost it by doing as the people wish. But with a military dictator about the only hope for a change of administration is natural death, violent revolution, or straight-up coup d’etat – which sets a bad precedent for military government. That’s eventually what did happen, but it took a man of daring and courage like Lei Fong Wu to do it.”
“Seems a might complicated, when a man could just go to the polls and mark his X.”
“It is,” conceded Inara. “And a lot less straight-forward than a firm constitutional democracy. But still valuable, in it’s way. Look at Salisbury: those people were free colonists, most of them, from Londinium and other Anglic territories. And when they were Certified for colonization the first thing they did was set up a monarchy.”
“Don’t they look to the King o’ Londinium?”
“On paper, yes. In reality the Steward is the monarch, selected from among the colony’s nobility and serving for life. When he or she dies, a new Steward is chosen from those among the nobility who have proven themselves in commerce or law.”
“And worthy deeds?” Mal asked wickedly. Inara ignored him.
“Look, a monarchy may not be the best thing for every world, but they work on some. And they usually work best when there is a young, happy, handsome couple. Those two would qualify.”
“They’d be better off to stay the hell out of politics.”
Inara nodded. “At least we can agree on that.”
Before Mal could come up with a witty rejoinder, Johnny stopped his outrageous flirtation with Nyan Nyan and put his hand to his ear. He looked intently at nothing, spoke briefly, then turned to face them.
“I just heard from Fong, he’s two levels down. He says he’s seen something strange, something moving. And he lost Book.”
“Book?” Inara asked, alarmed. “How could he loose Book?”
“Mighty embarrassin’ to mislay a whole preacher,” agreed Mal. “What’s happening?”
“I detailed the others to link up with him, then we can go out and search. I think—” He grabbed his earpiece again, then yelped and yanked it out of his ear. “Gorram it! Someone’s jamming our signal!”
“Are you sure?” Inara asked, alarmed.
“Damn sure!” agreed Johnny, rubbing his ear. He held up his submachine gun and pulled back the bolt. “I’m not very happy about it, either. Let’s go find out what’s happening.”
Mal did likewise with a nod, and hung his pistol holster through the slit in his browncoat. “Stairwell’s at the end of this corridor. Let’s go down quiet, avoid attention. Maybe we could sneak up on ‘em.”
Before Johnny could answer, shots started ringing out from below. A lot of them.
“Or, conversely, we could run like hell,” Mal suggested.
Thursday, December 15, 2005 4:04 PM
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Sunday, December 18, 2005 6:26 AM
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