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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
Inara meets her client, and the mystery deepens....
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1600 RATING: 10 SERIES: FIREFLY
Inara walked up the remaining stairs slowly, peering over the railing to see if either Lily or the figure in velvet reappeared. They did not, and she took a moment before the doorway to Jin’s quarters—his suite, she thought, I’ve been on board ship too long. His doorbell was shaped like an acorn, and she rang it briefly.
Jin opened the door. Some men, when they got older, just stopped trying. They put on weight, they abandoned good grooming, they let monkeys pick out their clothing. But not Jin. He was a tall, still-trim man with silver-and-black hair, which today as always was neatly clipped and impeccably styled. He was wearing a deep purple smoking jacket, belted at the waist, over silk pajama bottoms. The angular edges of the jacket gave his slim figure a decidedly dapper cast.
“Inara! ” he said. “I’m just…I’m speechless. I knew that you were beautiful, but—”
He was, with all sincerity, struggling for words.
“Bu gan dang,” said Inara, as they fondly embraced. Despite her humble words, she felt a quiet surge of pride. Jin never complained when you got it wrong, but he always let you know when you’d gotten it right.
Eventually, as she knew he would, he complimented her dress, saying that he especially liked the color. She smiled again. It was always best when they didn’t know why they liked what they liked: Without the mystery, a companion’s allure was just technique. And while good technique when recognized as such could generate admiration, it could never inspire passion.
They sat down on Jin’s leather sofa, and he began spooning loose tea into a pot that was sitting on the wooden table.
“Jin!” said Inara, laughing. “Isn’t that my job?”
“Oh, sorry,” he said, moving the pot to her.
She looked at him slyly as she poured in the hot water. “You’re not doing much to stop those rumors that you’ve had academy training,” she teased.
He put his finger to his lips, smiling. “I guess I won’t tell you about my dulcimer. So, did you see Lily on your way in?”
“Oh, yes,” Inara said, after a moment’s hesitation. Jin’s greeting had put Lily and her mysterious friend quite out of Inara’s mind. “She has grown into quite a sophisticated young lady.”
“Is something wrong?” asked Jin—he had noticed, he always noticed, that was the downside of his attentiveness. “Oh. You met Tamara.”
“Is that her name?” asked Inara. “I didn’t exactly meet her—she saw us in the front hall and ran away. She seemed quite upset.”
Jin sighed and threw up his arms. “Ah, Tamara is one of Lily’s little wounded birds. She’s Zelmich Amate’s daughter—have you heard about that whole scandal?”
“Well, I know who Zelmich Amate is,” said Inara. “He used to live on Sihnon.” Zelmich Amate was a shipping magnate. Inara had never met him, but Xenia Brin, his personal companion, used to appear from time to time at the academy—one of a slew of older alumnae who would come and dazzle the students with their seemingly impossible glamour while instructing them on the finer points of table etiquette.
“Well, Zelmich has married his companion—and when his children protested, he kicked out of the house. He never gave them money of their own. And it seems never taught them a thing about budgeting or anything like that. It’s been quite the scandal.”
Jin said that lightly, as one who had been discussing said scandal on the cocktail circuit for weeks. But Inara was genuinely shocked.
“It surely is. I must say, I’m astounded. Xenia has been Zelmich Amate’s personal companion for years! I met her when I was a student, and she always emphasized to us the need for someone in that position to get along well with the family and to protect their reputation from gossip. I’m just mortified that things would turn out this way!”
Jin took her hand and stroked it. “He didn’t marry Xenia,” he said. “It’s some—I think she’s 25 years old and just the most vulgar thing imaginable. She calls herself Desiree L’Amour, if you can believe it. Xenia’s in the same boat as the children. Fortunately some years ago she made Zelmich buy her a property here on Pfalzenhoffer. It’s in her name, otherwise the authorities would never let her stay. She’s also been more prudent than the children with the money he gave her back when she was in his good graces. Spead is staying with her, although he’s drinking like a soldier on leave nowadays. Tamara’s decided that all companions are dreadful, so she’s staying here—”
“Where she gets to meet the likes of me,” Inara finished.
Jin put his hand to her face, gently. “Inara,” he said. “Please don’t feel that way. You are part of a wonderful, valuable tradition. You and Xenia, you are what companions are supposed to be—a help and a treasure. Seeing you, the joy you give me, it’s just indescribable. I’ve so missed being with you.”
He leaned over and kissed her warmly on the mouth.
It was almost an hour later and he was still kissing her, only now they were lying on the silky sheets of Jin’s bed. As always, Jin had been a warm and attentive lover, vitally interested in her pleasure and remarkably appreciative of her charms. Inara felt a slight pang of guilt—she should have kept up with Jin, even after she left Sihnon. He had other homes, she should have made the effort. She had lost so much, there was so much she had to lose, why did she choose to lose him as well?
“Inara,” Jin said. “This has been wonderful. And I hate to do this—”
“But you’re going to have to ask me to go because of Tamara,” she finished. He looked at her with surprise. “You’ve never taken me to bed this quickly before, Jin.”
He rolled away from her on the bed and groaned.
“I’m sympathetic to the child, of course, but this whole foolish thing about companions! I had the best three days planned out—there’s a party tonight, and tomorrow a boat ride with a picnic on this lovely little island….”
Jin turned his head to Inara. “She’s quite emotional, you know. Lily is very concerned, and from what she tells me I think we may have to talk to a doctor.”
“It’s all right Jin, I understand,” Inara said. He still looked troubled, so she touched him. “It’s kind of you to take her in.”
Jin rolled back to her and put his hand on her arm. “Maybe I can sneak out,” he said, with a smile. “It’s been ages since I climbed a wall to be with a beautiful woman.”
Inara smiled back. “I’ll keep my shuttle’s com open.”
“You have such lovely smile, Inara, really. You are such a warm, wonderful person,” he said, and moved in closer. “I think Tamara’s fragile psyche could withstand another 15 minutes, don’t you?”
Mal was chatting up the amicable lawman when he saw the two woman walk in. One was dark and had a long, thin face like the one who met them, but she was older, and what with the less-surly expression, considerably more attractive. The other had curly brown hair and freckled skin, and was also not in any way surly. The curly-haired one saw Simon and it was like an electric current ran through her—she stopped dead in her tracks and yelled, “Simon! Simon Tam!”
Anyone looking at her at that moment could see that she was glad to see him, but of course Zoe wasn’t and put her hand to her gun before she turned and relaxed—Mal looked at the lawman and the lawman was looking at him, but he was pretty sure the fellow had noticed Zoe’s reaction.
Simon was frozen between them and the lady—his head was turned just far enough toward for her that she could catch his profile and recognize him, but not far enough so that he could see who was looking at him. He had a look on his face like he had just been run through the belly with a sword made of ice. It wouldn’t take long for the lawman to notice him, too.
Mal nodded at him. “I think that pretty lady wants to speak with you, son.”
Simon looked him, then his glace moved to Book, who also nodded. He turned to the lady. She shrieked. “Oh my God, Simon! It’s you! It’s really you!” she ran up and hugged him. The she turned to Mrs. Li who, come to think of it, was looking pretty gobsmacked herself, and said, “I know this man!”
“You know him?” Mrs. Li echoed her faintly.
“Annelore,” said Simon. “How are you?”
“I know him! I know this man! This is Simon Tam! We went to the Capital City Medacad on Osiris together!” Annelore said, getting, if possible, even more excited.
“You know him,” said Mrs. Li, again faintly.
“You know him!” exclaimed the woman who came in with Annelore.
“You know him?” asked the lawman. “He went to medacad with you?”
This was getting peculiar. “Yes, well, they know each other,” said Mal. “Old classmates, yes. It’s a small ’verse and all that. What say we head on back to our ship, and unload that—”
“You don’t understand,” said Annelore. “I know this man.”
“So I hear,” Mal said.
“Annelore, what’s going on?” asked Simon. “I mean, yes, we know each other—knew really. Annelore—this is Annelore Hidalgo—was two years ahead of me at medacad, she was my peer advisor.”
“And you were doing so well, too!” said Annelore. “How’d you finish—were you in the decimus?”
“Top three percent, actually—and you know that,” said Simon.
“No she doesn’t,” said the lawman.
“I don’t. I don’t know much of anything that happened after I graduated,” said Annelore. “I have amnesia.”
“This! This is a miracle! Oh, thank you God!” exclaimed Mrs. Li. She and the other woman—Mal was going to bet that she too was one of Mrs. Li’s daughters—began hugging each other.
Simon started talking to Annelore in that damned jargon, and it took some doing to get him to speak to people in a way that they could understand. Basically, this Annelore had no recollection of things that happened more than a couple of weeks after she graduated from medacad—the last 6 years of her life were pretty much gone. And she couldn’t remember nothing now for more than maybe a couple of hours at a stretch. She could doctor—she still remembered everything she had learned and apparently was very faithful with the note-taking—but she always had to have a helper around to remind her of who people were and where things were at.
“What caused this?” asked Simon. “Was it a” and then he went into a slew of words—Mal recognized “trauma” but that was about it.
“Any of those things could have—I don’t know,” replied Annelore. “Mrs. Li?”
“Oh, Lawman Jude can tell you,” said Mrs. Li.
“It seems that, Annelore has an implant in her head to keep her from having fits,” the lawman said. “She was pushed down a flight of stairs on Boros, hit her head, and the implant broke. It damaged that part of the brain that holds and makes memories.”
“What?” asked Simon.
Annelore started laughing. “Who would have thought me of all people would get a gou shi Frampold implant put in her head? I must have been someplace on the Rim where they had nothing better.”
“Who pushed her down the stairs?” asked Simon.
“A fed,” replied the lawman.
They all were surprised by that, particularly Annelore.
“Her advocate on Boros said that she was visiting the planet and was arrested because she was near a chemical warehouse that had just been robbed,” the lawman continued.
“They thought I was a thief?” asked Annelore.
“They thought you were a terrorist,” replied the lawman. “Apparently they’re concerned about some group that calls itself the Red Dawn—bioterrorism. There’s been medical supplies and chemicals stolen other places, and at this one hospital on Ariel, a bunch of drugs were taken and close to a dozen Alliance soldiers bled to death because of some weird virus.”
Mal checked to see how Simon was taking this, but the doctor already looked so comic struck that nothing new registered on his face.
“You were dressed like someone from the Rim, and you said you was a doctress, so they arrested you. While you were being transferred to the interrogation room, this one fed—who had already made a name for himself beating folks up—pushed you down a flight of stairs. Your implant broke, and you lost your memory.”
“And you was innocent!” exclaimed Mrs. Li.
“They never were able to find no cause to tie you to the crime. Crippling a doctress from the top medacad on Osiris surely got that fed fired—your advocate saw to that. And you were in a hospital on Boros.”
“So how did she get here?” asked Simon.
“Well, that’s where things get odd,” replied the lawman. “A man from a transport ship got her released from the hospital into his care. He did it using paperwork signed by her parents.”
“That’s impossible,” said Simon.
“My parents are dead,” said Annelore. “They were taken by cholera when I was 10 years old.”
“I know,” said the lawman. “That ship took you off of Boros before your advocate realized what was going on. Then, they ditched you here.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Annelore.
The lawman looked down at his feet, scratched the back of his head, and looked at Mrs. Li.
“Well?” she asked.
“Annelore,” said Mrs. Li. “There are some things you are better off not remembering.”
“One of the herdsmen found you. You were unconscious,” the lawman continued. “The ship had taken off by then. We didn’t know where you were from, and by the time you woke up, you couldn’t tell us anything. We thought maybe they had whomped you on the head and that was why you couldn’t remember nothing. We didn’t find out different until the Alliance came. That ship got hit by Reavers. All six men we saw on board were killed.”
“Why was I on Boros?” asked Annelore.
“We don’t know,” replied the lawman. “You didn’t live there.”
“You were probably buying medicine for your patients,” replied Mrs. Li.
“So what you know is: Annelore was on the Rim, somewhere. She came to Boros for some reason, then was mysteriously taken here,” said Simon. “I realize you probably don’t have a lot of sophisticated investigative capabilities here—”
“That’s the truth,” said the lawman. “Usually we can fix whatever’s happened just by cracking whatever ship’s on the ground.”
“—but if the Alliance was helping you with your investigation, why don’t you know more?”
The lawman stifled a guffaw, and Mal already knew the answer.
“The Alliance wasn’t helping us with our investigation, we had to help them with theirs. That transport ship was discovered by an Alliance cruiser. Reavers—well of course, according to the Alliance, there ain’t no Reavers, so some other gang of murdering maniacs—set a time-detonator to the ship’s life-support system. It clicked on automatically when internal sensors detected warmth and movement. Ten minutes later—”
The lawman made an explosive sound with his lips and gestured outward with his hands.
“Alliance lost something like 15 men and a couple of small ships, and their big ship was damaged. But the men had been sending a video feed to the main ship, and I watched it to verify that the bodies were those of the men who had come here. All six of those e mo were on that ship. Or at least their heads were.”
“We were able to find out about Boros because that’s where the ship was before it came here,” said Mrs. Li. “That’s how we found that Annelore had been there too and what had happened to her—her advocate was so worried. But that’s as far as we’ve been able to get.”
“Like you said,” the lawman said to Simon, “we don’t have a lot of fancy databases or great detecting gear—law enforcement around here usually translates into making sure people do their work assignments. Annelore ain’t got no family. Most of the people she remembers from medacad we can’t track down, and the few we’ve been able to find don’t know nothing useful.
“But someone like you,” he put a hand on Simon’s left shoulder, “you could help. You remember the years she has lost. You might know where people have moved to.”
“You’re a blessing from God!” exclaimed Mrs. Li, grabbing Simon’s right hand.
Zao gao. “Well, that he is,” said Mal. “So we’re going to head on back to our ship with our little blessing, and you all can swing by when you’re ready to pick up your stuff.”
And with that, he grabbed Simon’s right shoulder, pointed him to the door, and got the hell out of that gorram place.
* * *
The night had come and gone on Pfalzenhoffer, and the day was once again waning. Inara had not heard from Jin. Initially waiting for Jin to call was kind of exciting—there was this sense of adventure, like the two of them were kids who might be able to sneak out of the house for a tryst. But after a while the hope of seeing him again began to fade, and being alone in the shuttle got kind of boring. Since he had paid for three days, seeking other work was out of the question, and Inara felt obligated not to travel too far in case he called. Her neighbors were, of course, all working during the day. Inara wondered if they would even talk to her—they were mostly construction workers, working on short-term expansion or renovation projects at the estates, and were unlikely to have known many companions.
Around noon, she had finally called Xenia. Under the circumstances, a call on a fellow companion in distress would be expected—after all, what was the guild if not a sisterhood? And Xenia had been one of Inara’s instructors, even if they were never close.
But she was from Sihnon: not a client, like Jin, who had doubtless been told some pleasant tale by House Madrassa, but a companion, so Inara had hesitated. It was silly—Xenia had left Sihnon well before Inara had, following Zelmich to one of his other homes. And she was probably too distracted by her own problems to care about Inara even if she did know.
So Inara had rung Xenia, and the older woman had answered the call. She had looked just as Inara remembered, round eyes, high cheekbones, holding her shoulders back like a dancer. Her hair was now a dark red that complemented her pale skin, and while her skin was not unlined she still gave off an aura of glamour that brought Inara back to her Academy days. She remembered Xenia exclaiming to a group of students: “Being a companion is not a job. It is not a career. It is a way of life—it’s who you are, not what you do!”
Once Inara explained who she was, Xenia said she remembered her face and invited Inara to visit that afternoon. Since her place wasn’t really any further from the You estate than the docks, Inara agreed.
Xenia’s home was a single-story building made out of fieldstone and mortar located about half-a-mile from the docks. While Inara thought the house was quite shuai, what with its well-kept little front yard, she knew that by Pfalzenhoffer standards it was probably considered a hovel.
Inside, the house was very clean, although Inara couldn’t help but notice that most of the furniture was oversized and just a touch shabby—probably the cast-offs from whatever gargantuan castle Zelmich lived in with his new bride. Xenia seemed to be adjusting well to her reduced circumstances; she told Inara that she had been raised with two siblings in a one-room apartment on Persephone, and while Zelmich had bought her this house strictly to give her residency rights, she would sometimes stay in it when he was off-planet because it seemed cozier and “more human.”
You didn’t have to have companion training to realize that Xenia was both worried and upset. It didn’t take much prompting for her to open up to Inara—she couldn’t talk about the Amates to anybody on Pfalzenhoffer (“not even the other companions”) without the risk of creating all the more fodder for gossip and scandal. But Inara gave her word as a companion that Xenia’s confidences would be guarded, and since Inara didn’t live there—well, Xenia needed to confide in someone.
So she told all. “Zelmich’s losing his mind,” Xenia said. He had always been strong-willed and difficult—he was self-made, much like Xenia herself. But in the past two years, he had become increasingly erratic and forgetful—and he refused to see a doctor. Xenia’s role had increasingly become one of a nurse, and she seriously doubted that Desiree L’Amour was going to be up to the task.
His two children were also an enormous source of worry. Zelmich had divorced their mother a decade before when her drinking got so far out of control that she became an embarrassment to him. It was an acrimonious separation, and Tamara had never really embraced Xenia. Now that Desiree had caused the break with her father, Tamara wouldn’t even see Xenia or talk to her “and I raised that child for six years!” Spead seemed to be following in his mother’s footsteps—he was supposed to be staying with Xenia, but she hadn’t seen him in four days and had no idea where he was.
“We’ve always worried about his drinking,” said Xenia, then shook her head. “Listen to me! We worry—that’s a sad, self-deluded lie, isn’t it? I worry about the children. I worry. Me. We don’t worry about anyone anymore, assuming we ever really did.”
She put her head in her hands.
“You know, Inara, people who don’t like companions say that we don’t care. That we have sex with people, and we don’t care. But you know that’s not true. A true companion—not some jian huo like Desiree L’Amour, but the real thing—cares. We care,” she looked at Inara with despair in her eyes. “But they don’t.”
And Inara just had no idea what to say.
Inara’s shuttle never pinged her while she was at Xenia’s, and Jin hadn’t called during her flight back to the docks. The docks had a commissary that would deliver meals, so Inara ordered dinner and ate it alone in her shuttle. She tried to practice her calligraphy for a while and was just considering turning in early when her control panel lit up and began to ding. Inara gave herself a quick once-over in the mirror, then answered.
But the face that appeared was not of an older man. Inara realized with a start that she was speaking to Lily You.
“Lily!” she said, forcing herself to smile. “How are you?”
“Inara, hello,” said Lily in a low, tense voice. “Can you meet me tomorrow?”
Simon kept silent until they were back on board, but the moment Kaylee sealed the doors he spoke. “Why can’t I help her?” he asked Mal.
The captain turned around and looked at Simon like he had just grown two heads. “I would think that would be abundantly clear,” he said. “The last thing you or your sister need is to have a passel of lawmen helping you poke through your past.”
Mal turned away and River ran up and demanded “her” vest back. “Not now, River! Not now!” Simon snapped, then walked after the captain and stood in front of him. “These people aren’t Alliance. They barely have anything but fruit.”
“Ah, yes, and that bounty on you and your sister would help them mightily with their situation, wouldn’t it now?” Mal replied.
“What’s going on?” asked Kaylee.
“The doctor’s found an old friend from his medacad days,” said the captain. “She’s off in the head, and he wants to get us all pinched helping her out.”
“Figures,” muttered Jayne, returning to his workout.
Simon rolled his eyes. “I know we’d have to be careful. But I have to help Annelore. I owe her.”
“Because of what happened on Ariel?” Mal asked. “Simon, we don’t know for sure that’s even the same thing.”
“We did rob a hospital there. And those officers didn’t sound like they were having a party.”
“There was something I thought was odd about the arrest,” Book said.
“Yes?” asked Simon, sensing an ally.
“She was arrested because they thought she belonged to the Red Dawn. Now that really was a terrorist group—but they were taken down back before you were born. Bioterrorists. Fanatics who believed that humanity should have died with Earth-That-Was.”
“I love these little history lessons,” said Wash.
Book gave a quick smile. “They were so tight-knit, you couldn’t pay them to inform, and it took years to get someone on the inside. But they were all rounded up, it must have been 30 years ago.”
“That’s what they talk about back in the abbey?” Jayne asked, putting down his weights again. “The troublesome infiltrating of terrorist groups?”
“There’s not much to do other than gossip,” said Book.
“You think she was set up?” Mal asked Book.
“I think worse than that,” Simon said. “That implant—only Frampold implants malfunction like that, all the newer models are safer. That’s why Frampolds are so cheap.”
“So, she was out on the Rim, and all they had….”
“Not possible. Annelore was from the Rim herself, her parents were sharecroppers before cholera killed them. I mean, think of it—they died of cholera in this day and age. You can imagine the place she grew up was like.
“She wound up in an orphanage and started winning scholarships—that’s how she managed to attend medacad. But she was very political, very aware of the gap. She was the only person on Osiris ever I knew who felt the war to unite the planets ended badly.”
The captain’s eyebrows went up, and Simon felt a glimmer of hope.
“She was also very gifted mechanically—very good with devices and implants. If she had chosen to pursue that, she would have made the Medical Elect in no time. She wanted to practice general medicine out on the Rim, though—she said all implant specialists ever did was shut down the hunger centers in the brains of anorexic socialites. My point is, she knew about the Frampolds. She knew better than anyone how dangerous they are, and she even petitioned to have them outlawed. She often said she’d rather put a bullet in her brain than a Frampold.”
“So, you think someone did this to her on purpose?” Book asked.
“I do,” said Simon. “When a Frampold malfunctions like that, it typically shorts out so that it stops working. If the person actually has a seizure disorder, it’s not long before they start having seizures again—that plus the brain damage from the malfunction itself are why Frampolds are so dangerous. But no one said she’d had a seizure since she’s been here. Either she’s an atypical case, or she never had seizure problems in the first place.”
“If what you’re saying is true, that’s certainly quite a misfortune for her,” said Mal. “But it doesn’t change the landscape here. Bottom line is, she doesn’t know you’re on the run, and if you tell her, she’ll forget—she could put you in danger without even knowing she’s done it. And if you help her, if you call up all your old buddies from medacad, you’ll get pinched for sure.”
“Not necessarily,” said Simon. “I know who I can call. A lawyer friend of Annelore’s from Osiris. His name is Sisyphus Ting.”
“What makes you think you can trust him?” Mal asked.
“I called him before,” said Simon. “Two years ago, when River was still in that academy, and I was trying to get her out. He put me in touch with Annelore then. She was always very political, very involved in organizations, some of them fairly radical—not, you know, bioterrorists or anything, but…I thought she might know someone who could help.”
“And did she?”
“I don’t know. I was contacted by that underground group about six weeks after I spoke to her—that may have been her doing, or it may not have been. All I know is, Sisyphus was a reliable contact, and he was discrete—I never saw any fallout from contacting him. He could help her, and he’d do it without letting anyone know about it.”
The captain was about to say something when the banging started. Both Zoe and Jayne stepped over to the closed airlock, positioning themselves on either side and making Simon feel rather exposed as he dumbly stood in the middle of the hold. Mal looked at Zoe and nodded, and she opened up the doors to the cargo hold.
The doors opened to reveal what Simon assumed was the better part of the Li family—Kerry and the woman who had been with Annelore, who both looked upset, and Jasmine, who held a rough sack and looked vaguely irritated, most likely by the fact that she was being forced to see them all again.
“Captain Reynolds,” called Kerry.
“What the hell’s going on?” asked the second woman.
“Jian Kang, please. Swearing will cost you,” Kerry said to her, then stepped forward to Mal. “Captain Reynolds, you left us.”
“You ran out!” said Jian Kang.
“Now, Captain, we’re not making accusations, and we’re not trying to cast your actions in a negative light. There’s good in everyone.”
“Especially in Annelore!” Jian Kang exclaimed. “God has not so abandoned that poor woman that she is without friends.”
“Jian Kang, please!” said Kerry.
“Whatchya got in that bag there, little lady?” Jayne asked, and Simon realized with a start that he was talking to Jasmine. And that Jasmine was smiling at him.
“Cornbread and marmalade. Something for you to nabble on,” said Jasmine, swaying a bit. A grin spread across Jayne’s face.
“But you don’t get any unless you help Annelore!” Jian Kang pointed her finger at Jayne. His grin disappeared and he looked at her through narrowed eyes.
This was getting out of control. “We’re going to help,” said Simon, quickly. Jasmine handed the bag to Jayne, taking longer than was entirely necessary to do it.
“We are,” said Mal, with just a hint of a question in his voice.
“We are,” Kaylee piped in, bless her. “We just need to be kind of, you know, quiet about it.”
“Quiet?” asked Jian Kang.
“Discreet,” said Simon.
“I can be discreet,” Jayne said to Jasmine.
“Why?” asked Kerry.
“Ma, they’re smugglers,” said Jasmine, without turning.
“But Lawman Jude doesn’t care about that,” said Kerry.
“We’d just feel better if the doctor was allowed to make some inquiries—discreet inquiries—about Annelore without necessarily involving anyone who’s in any law-enforcement type of role,” said Mal.
Jian Kang glared at them, while Kerry had a fretful look on her face like she didn’t want to believe bad things about such nice people, but….
“Simon borrows things,” said River, accusingly. She was standing by Smith’s boxes, but strode over to grab the sleeve of Simon’s jacket. “He borrows them, and then he doesn’t give them back.”
A light went on in Kerry and Jian Kang’s heads. “Oh, you owe money,” said the older woman, and the two started laughing. Kerry walked over to Simon and patted him on the shoulder. “Trust me, you aren’t the only person who’s come to Glory of God one jump ahead of the bill collectors.”
“Annelore always says, it’s the richest kids who get in the worst trouble with money,” Jian Kang said with a smile.
“I’m glad that’s cleared up,” said the captain.
“Where is Annelore, anyway?” asked Simon.
“She’s back at the house with Jing Mei, don’t worry,” said Jian Kang. “That’s one of my other sisters. She and I help out with the clinic and the medical stuff.”
“One of us—me or my daughters—is with her at all times,” said Kerry. Simon caught enough of Jasmine’s expression to realize that this was not a duty all the Li women relished.
“Why is that?” he asked.
The question wiped the smiles off the Lis faces. Kerry suddenly looked like she was about to cry.
“Annelore is very, um, vulnerable the way she is now,” said Jian Kang. “If someone does something to her and, you know, hides her afterwards, she doesn’t know about it, and she doesn’t know who did it.”
“You said that she had been assaulted by those men on the ship,” said Simon.
“That happened, yes,” said Jian Kang. “There have also been two other—assaults. At first we thought that maybe it was another ship, but after the second time….”
“So is this why you’re willing to risk maybe losing your doctor?” asked Mal.
“Yes, that. That and she’s getting worse,” said Jian Kang.
They had agreed to meet for tea—away from the You estate, of course. Lily had given Inara the coordinates for the tea shop and told her it was in a tall, silver building, which was a lucky thing because the shop had no sign, and aside from a nearby landing area surrounded by a screen of trees, there was nothing to indicate what it actually was. It looked like was a fat grain silo—a large silver cylinder polished to a brilliant shine that rose straight up out of the ground. It was about three stories tall and shaped just like the real thing, but it was too glossy and too perfectly smooth to be any silo Inara had ever seen on a real Rim world. Next to it was a large red-and-white barn that, like the silo, sparkled with cleanliness. There were no animals; instead, people walked casually from one building to the other.
One waved at her. It was Lily. She was wearing a high-necked dress with a long skirt and modestly flared sleeves that was made out of yellow-and-white checked cotton. She was carrying a plain wicker basket. Inara felt a sudden stab of insecurity about everything she had on—the off-the shoulder top, the velvet, the gold jewelry, the exposed navel. Everyone else, she realized, was dressed far more plainly, in cotton or with some of the men, suede leather.
The simple life of Pfalzenhoffer. Those outfits probably cost ten times what I’m wearing, Inara thought, as she and Lily smiled and air-kissed.
They walked in through a door in the side of the silo. Inside, the outer wall was clear glass, giving the patrons a full view of the rolling pastures and trees that surrounded it. Inara and Lily were seated up on the third floor, with Lily asking for a table located at a remove from the other diners. They ordered tea and the fruit-and-cookies plate, which was costly, but according to Lily, excellent.
“I feel so badly about what’s happened,” said Lily. “I wanted to apologize for ruining your and Father’s time together.”
“Nonsense,” Inara replied, biting delicately into a sweet berry. “I trust Tamara is feeling better.”
Lily sighed and pulled her mouth to one side. “Not really. Not at all. I had hoped to take her out today and treat her, but she doesn’t want to leave the house.”
“She’s afraid that if she leave, Jin will...?” Inara asked.
“She’s afraid of that, she’s afraid she might see a companion wherever she goes, she’s afraid people will see her and gossip. She can’t go on like this—Father’s arranged to have a doctor come speak with her, maybe give her something. It’s not healthy.”
“You’re a good friend,” Inara said, reaching out and holding Lily’s hand. Looking down at Lily’s sleeve, Inara noticed that her dress wasn’t simply a check printed onto fabric—it was made entirely of yellow-and-white ribbon, woven together. A small design had been embroidered onto every square.
“Thank you—you’ve always been so nice to me. So I wanted to kind of make things up to you. I wanted to treat Tamara by taking her to the day spa next door.” Lily pointed over to the barn. Inara briefly wondered if the bathrooms were designed to resemble outhouses. “But since she won’t go—would you be my guest instead? It’s fantastic. They have the most decadent treatments imaginable. They exfoliate with fresh grapefruit, and they make a moisturizing mask with avocadoes—the real thing, they mash them into the mask right in front of you!”
“Sounds heavenly,” Inara said. “It’s a shame Tamara won’t go with you.”
“I can’t believe it either,” said Lily. “I mean, I thought I could help, but…. She won’t even talk to Xenia, and she’s almost like her stepmother. The whole thing about companions is just insane. There are companions everywhere, in our circles at least. You really can’t function if you don’t want to see them—it’s like being afraid of security staff or something.”
“Well, your father’s extraordinarily open. It’s fairly unusual that a client is honest with his children about that part of his life. I’ve guess I’ve always wondered why—”
“I never had a problem with it?” Lilly finished. “Well, I guess in a way it should bother me. Some would say that the healthy thing for Father to do would be to get on with his life, considering how long it’s been since Mother passed. But Father’s close friends tell me that he’ll always be a one-woman man. I mean, he and my mother fell in love when they were 16 and married as soon as they were old enough to make it legal. When you’re that age, you know, everything’s so romantic. Plus my grandparents thought that they were too young and opposed the relationship, so there was this whole Romeo-and-Juliet situation where Father would crawl out the window and foil the security systems to see her. Romance and adventure, plus true love and a happy marriage. I think he feels like that sort of thing—well, he can’t replicate it, so why try? So I guess Father’s use of companions doesn’t bother me because it’s sort of a tribute to her, to the love they had.”
“Your mother sounds like an exceptional woman,” Inara replied, keeping her voice casual. “Do you have a picture of her?”
“Oh yes,” said Lily, reaching into her wicker basket and pulling out a small book. She opened it to reveal a flat screen on the right-hand side and a collection of data spikes in the left. She pulled out the spike labeled “Album” and inserted it into the screen.
She thought for a moment. “Wedding reception,” she said to the screen, then smiled at Inara. “I always like seeing that.”
Inara smiled back. Lily skipped the images forward for a little while, then turned the screen to Inara. The couple walking into the room looked familiar. Jin was much younger, of course, but was easily recognizable. The woman, though—she looked like something out of another still Inara had seen recently. Her nose was a little thinner and her jaw a little squarer, but the smile and the curly black hair, half-up-and-half-down, were familiar. She wore pearl studs in her ears and a chocker of fat pearls. Bright red sleeves flowed from the thin straps of her dress, placed so that they were almost off-the-shoulder. The thought came back to Inara like a mockery: Most people notice the cut first, even if they think they notice the color.
“Thank you so much for showing that to me,” she said to Lily.
“So will you come with me to the day spa?” Lily asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t—I have some business to attend to,” Inara said. “Perhaps you should ask a friend?”
This place was just darling. Here it was, the middle of the day and hot as the dickens—lucky thing she had her parasol—and everyone was just stirring to life. Kaylee had set up chair by Serenity, but curiosity soon pulled her nearer to the cave entrance, which by now had people coming in and out. Some were hauling out plants in pots—some looked like herbs but others had lovely flowers. Others were setting up what looked like open packing boxes lined on the inside with reflective foil, then placing pots of whatever needed cooking in the center. Still others were setting up solar chargers, attaching them to a variety of batteries.
Then the flap covering the entrance whipped open and about a dozen people came walking out—toward Kaylee. Two of them had badges.
“Hi!” she said. “Are you ready to unload the cargo?”
The rest just nodded, but one of the lawmen—a blonde woman of slight build, stepped forward, smiled, and gave Kaylee a hearty shake of the hand. Her badge was attached to a tank top, which revealed a long, curvy scar across her collarbone.
“Ya, you know us, don’t you?” she said. She had a charming lilt to her voice, and Kaylee liked her immediately.
“Just follow me, then. I’m Kaylee.”
“I’m Xastare. Xastare Baxshesh,” said the lawman. “So what do you do on the ship, Kaylee?”
They reached Serenity, and Kaylee let them in. Xastare said howdy to Mal, Jayne, and Zoe, then asked to see the cargo. It was an odd mix of things, a lot of solar sheeting, portable solar-powered heaters, filters, parts, some medicine. The solar stuff got taken outside, and its voltage was checked with what Kaylee realized was homemade equipment.
But she didn’t get to watch things too closely. Jayne and the captain were keeping an eye on the goings-on outside anyway. And Kaylee was busy chatting with the very friendly Xastare. Like people often were, Xastare was curious that someone Kaylee’s age would be a ship’s mechanic—she really didn’t look it, but Xastare was some 15 years older. So she was real curious about what all Kaylee knew about ships.
They were interrupted by the other lawman, who told Xastare that the cargo checked out. “Great, I’ll radio in for the mule—” Xastare said, then a loud ringing noise interrupted, and she rolled her eyes. “After prayer!”
Then the lawmen walked out of the cargo hold to where the rest of their people were, and all the Glory of God people stopped what they were doing, got on their knees, pulled strings of beads out of their pockets, and began reciting prayers.
It took the crew a moment to figure out what was going on—Kaylee peeked out through the cargo door to make sure Mal wasn’t going to do anything obnoxious, then bowed her head and clasped her hands. She had no idea if she should be saying something out loud, or should get on her knees, or what. They were reciting something all at the same time—it was pretty complicated, the lawmen would say something, and the settlers would all reply. Kaylee decided against saying anything to mess it up, especially because she was so rattled that “Nows I lays me down to sleep” was the only prayer she could think of.
Eventually they went quiet, but were obviously still praying—Mal almost said something, but Kaylee shook her head at him. A full minute went by, and then, just like that, the Glory of God people all got up and went back to what they had been doing, just like nothing had happened.
But not for long. “You are people of God?” a voice called out. River stepped forward to the doorway of the cargo hold.
Kaylee opened her mouth to say something, but Xastare had already replied, “Yes, we submit to the will of God.”
“Then you must burn her,” said River, putting her hands together behind her back. “This girl reads minds and spins falsehoods. She’s a witch, and you must purge the devil from her with fire.”
There was dead silence, as Kaylee, Jayne, and Mal exchanged glances. Then the laughter began. “Oh, I see you brought an ostrich to trade!” one of the settlers shouted at the captain, clapping his shoulder, and they all laughed harder after that. River looked confused for a moment, then began laughing too, harder than the settlers, even.
“That’s one coffee-wit you’ve got with you there, isn’t it?” Xastare asked Kaylee.
Kaylee was watching River, who was almost doubled over with laughter. It was a little alarming, really, how hard and how loud River was laughing. Louder, and louder, and louder River laughed, and all the settlers gradually stopped laughing and began looking at her. Then River abruptly stopped and looked at Kaylee with a lost expression on her face.
“She’s not all there, is she?” Xastare asked.
“Um, no,” said Kaylee. “She’s not, not all there, and people don’t always react, you know, well to her. Sometimes people are a little unkind.”
“People can be fools, now can’t they?” Xastare said. She walked over to River. “We’re a Godly people indeed, dear girleen. But we don’t go about persecuting the wounded. Anyone comes at you with a notion to tie you up and set you on fire, you send them over to me.”
Xastare lifted her sleeveless shirt, and Kaylee saw—oh, it must have been at least two pistols and a knife holster tucked into her pants, plus some other hardware. Goodness, Kaylee thought, she dresses like Jayne.
“God has not abandoned you, girleen,” Xastare said, touching River’s chin. “You remember that.”
“I understand,” River said, just like a normal girl. “I do read minds, however.”
“Can you read mine now?” That was Mal, suddenly cutting in. His expression made it so that even Kaylee could read his thoughts.
“She can’t,” River said to him. “She’d get in trouble.”
“Well, there you have it,” said Mal. “Let’s get on with things, shall we now?”
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