Mal and his crew are back. Always looking for a payday, Mal accepts a job from an old nemesis and occasional client: Badger. The payoff? More than he or his crew can imagine. But with such an astounding amount of scratch comes an equally astounding helping of danger. Read on!
The Ramudy Estate was larger than most. Floating a mile over the Bellerophon Sea, it boasted over seven hundred private rooms, a museum of artifacts from Earth-That-Was, an indoor “lake” with sprawling arboretum, fifteen swimming pools, twenty gymnasiums, three churches, a mall, and an indentured staff of nearly nine hundred ready and willing to give their all to see to the comfort of residents and guests. Baron Taskmos Ramudy constantly complained to the local authorities that nine hundred simply wasn’t enough, but had met with nothing but simpering apologies and useless excuses. His estate demanded no fewer than eleven hundred servants, and he wouldn’t be satisfied until the difference was made up in full.
“That depends on you, I suppose,” she said over her shoulder, feeling that surge of freedom as Serenity lifted off and just before the grav dampeners kicked in.
He served in Parliament, and was one of the most vocal of those in it demanding that the “lesser worlds” be invaded to swell the indentured ranks once more. He’d had several meetings with the Lord Prime Minister himself, and his extraordinary wealth and influence hadn’t gone unnoticed or unwelcomed.
Ramudy’s wife, Clarissa, was a former Companion who, over the sixty-eight years of her life, had tightened her clutches on the entire Order and its ten Houses, to the point that few decisions affecting all three hundred thousand Companions didn’t get noticed or influenced by her. She was a thin-lipped woman of mixed Asian and Caucasian descent, heavily made up and never to be seen wearing the same outfit two days running, if two hours running. When the Tanbaness—the Gathering of Companions, which took place every five years—came around, Clarissa Ramudy had long since seen to it that it would take place at her estate.
It took a very exclusive invitation to be there, one Inara Serra was certain she wouldn’t get. But there it had been waiting, a secured wave waiting for her in her shuttle a year ago.
The Tanbaness was a four-month-long event. She got the wave from Mal three months in.
“I can’t just pack up and leave!” she protested.
“I …” Mal swore under his breath, then shook his head. “I … need you. I can’t … I can’t do … ah, hell.”
He went to click off, but she stopped him.
“What is it you need? Maybe I can make a few contacts in your general direction …”
“Forget it. Sorry I bothered you, Inara …”
“Wait. Mal, wait. Don’t hang up—”
She hadn’t seen him in three months, and had missed him. She’d missed Serenity too, and the crew. They were family to her, as much as she resisted feeling that way.
“Where are you going?”
That gave her pause. “Whatever for?”
“Some VIP. I need you on board when we break atmo. The core of the Core won’t harass us with you here.”
She chuckled. “You hugely overstate my importance.”
“You’re a Companion. They’ll be reluctant to arrest us or blow us out of the sky with … well, with one of your type aboard.”
He gave a pained glance. “I haven’t called you that in …”
She flushed at her bad behavior. It was uncalled for. “Forgive me. You’re right. You’ve been nothing but kind and gracious … and for far longer than I ever thought you capable.” She wanted to say more, but held off. Instead she asked, “How is everyone?”
“Oh, good, good,” he said with a quick, evasive smile. “We got us a new pilot.”
“She came very highly recommended from an unreproachable source.”
“And who would that be?”
She gawked at the screen. “And you trust her?”
“I can’t believe I’m sayin’ it, but yeah, I do. She’s … well, you should meet her. Hell, even Jayne likes her.”
She nodded blankly.
“Where are you now?”
“Four days out. Look, Inara … if there was any other way to do this job without troublin’ you, I’d …”
“I’m not saying no; but I’m not saying yes, either. I’ll see what I can do. And I’ll let local law enforcement know again that you’re under my protection so you aren’t harassed as you come in.”
“That’s the kind of protection we could sure use going in to Upturned Nose Central …”
“In terms of upturned noses, Londinium and Bellerophon are day and night. I’ll get back to you. Give me two days.”
“I appreciate it. It’s good to see you again.”
“And you,” she said, hoping he couldn’t see the warmth she felt at his words.
He gave an unsure-but-trying-to-be-sure nod and clicked off.
She stared at the blank screen for a long time before standing and leaving her suite.
Requesting an audience with Clarissa Ramudy was, to Inara’s view, a ridiculous procedure. First was the matter of calling it an “audience.” The woman wasn’t a goram queen, after all. She wasn’t even a real Companion, and hadn’t been for years.
Second was the request procedure, which required observing an age-old Companion tea service with one of Ramudy’s staff. Given that the “petitioner” observed the practice appropriately, the staffer would forward the request to another one, higher up the food chain. Given that that one approved the request, and after another tea service, the audience with Ramudy was granted—or not. These hoops typically required many days to jump through. But Inara didn’t have many days. She had two.
She wasn’t worried. She could see Clarissa Ramudy today if needed—which it was. And the reason came down to a ten-month-long affair she’d had with Clarissa Ramudy’s only son when she was sixteen years old.
The War of the Independents was just around the corner, and Inara’s family estate on Osiris bordered the Ramudy’s. Joshua Ramudy and Inara learned to ride horses together, went to the same academy together, and even swam for the academy’s respective boys’ and girls’ swimming team and cheered each other on at meets. They attended the same dinners and balls, and, as they grew up, found each other interesting beyond their friendship, which deepened over time. There was a large oak tree that bordered the Ramudy and Serra estates; it was there that they made love for the first time.
Then the war came, and Joshua was drafted by the Allied Planets. And then he was shot and killed.
His last words, which his mother caught wind of, were, apparently, “Let Inara know … I love her … I love her …”
Inara’s heartbreak was unspeakable. But Clarissa Ramudy’s swallowed the Verse. When she heard what her dear son said in his final moments, Inara’s standing was forever sealed.
Clarissa Ramudy was responsible for Inara’s acceptance into House Madrassa, at the time the most respected House in the Companion ranks. She kept constant tabs on her, and when her training was complete, the Ramudy matriarch made it plain that Inara should be fast-tracked for House Priestess, an honor Inara eventually declined with thanks.
At the lift she said to the two security guards standing there, “I’d like to speak to Mrs. Ramudy, please.”
Normally this would result in one of the guards disappearing into it for several minutes. Eventually the guard would bring back a low-level staffer who’d give a “pre-interview” to see what was what, and to determine if a higher-level meeting and an initial tea ceremony was appropriate. But the guards had been apprised as to the importance of Inara Serra, and said only, “If you would accompany us into the lift, ma’am,” then standing out of the way to let her go in first.
The lift’s doors closed and she felt it surge upward. She couldn’t help but think of Serenity. For she’d feel that same surge when it lifted off and before the grav dampeners kicked in.
She missed it.
This retreat had turned out to be far more impactful than she thought it would be. For renewed calls had been made in the past few months for her to assume the position as Priestess for House Madrassa, whose standing had suffered over the years and longed for someone who could restore it to its former glory.
All eyes had turned to her. And those that were reluctant to were sternly directly that way by Clarissa Ramudy, who made it abundantly clear that Inara Serra was the one and only choice. The ensuing pressure had been intense and unrelenting.
Two words that also perfectly described Malcolm Reynolds.
She had handled it like a pro, with a deft but sure demeanor and matchless grace, which, ironically, only brought more pressure upon her. She wished she had a little of Mal’s stumbling, bumbling, if-all-goes-to-hell-just-shoot-the-bastards diplomacy. They’d sniff their way out of her hair in an instant. But she didn’t, and that only made her miss him more.
The lift slowed, stopped. The doors opened.
“If you would, Miss Serra …” motioned one of Clarissa’s personal assistants as Inara stepped out. “Madam Ramudy is in the spa but should be available within the hour. Would you care for a late lunch or coffee?”
It occurred to her that she hadn’t eaten since early this morning.
“Both would be nice, thank you,” she said.
The assistant smiled. “Excellent. If you’d just follow me …”
They fed her in the East Garden Room, which gave a spectacular view of the sprawling grounds and the
. The day was clear and breezy and
softening into a deepening pastel blue. Bellerophon Sea
She ate an assortment of lightly cooked mixed vegetables with exquisitely tender beef, hand-picked white rice, a glass of aged ríaci wine, and then coffee. Three servants saw to her needs; two were permanently stationed behind her, presumably to cut her food and spoon it into her mouth should she demand it.
And there was a time when she would have demanded it, if for no other reason than to “express her wealth,” as Clarissa put it. She had been raised with every comfort in the Verse, and had found great comfort in opulence. For a long time, including most of her time in Companion training, she couldn’t picture herself living any other way.
“A person’s wealth is the surest sign that what he or she is doing is sanctioned and blessed by God.” That was Clarissa Ramudy’s sincere belief, very sincerely voiced, which it was often, and young Inara had bought into it fully. “Of course, the opposite is true as well,” opined Mrs. Ramudy. “If you’re poor, it’s because you are not following the righteous path.”
But then she left House Madrassa and ventured out on her own. She had met Mal and Kaylee and
Wash and Zoe, then Simon
and River. And she had met Shepherd Book. No one on Serenity ever knew of their many long conversations in her shuttle.
She had repeated Clarissa Ramudy’s words once to him and watched as sadness
shadowed his face.
“And do you believe that now?” he asked.
“I have no idea what I believe,” she answered honestly. “I was so sure of myself and my place in the Verse back then. And now … well, look at me!”
“I’m looking,” said Book, smiling.
“I used to think adulthood meant certainty. It meant that the steps became surer, and there would be no fog covering them. In many ways that was what I was taught in school.” She went to say something else but shook her head and fell silent.
He studied her. “You feel you have betrayed your past, and your family, for choosing a different path …”
“I can’t help it.”
A long stretch of silence ensued. Book sipped his tea, and she stared blankly over his shoulder.
“It’s worse than that,” she said. “I feel betrayed by … by them. By my entire past. And I can’t help the anger I feel when I think of it.”
“Lies are easy to cover up and disguise with money,” he offered.
“Is that it? Aren’t you going to tell me how Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and so on?”
He gazed at her with surprise, but it lasted only an instant. “I don’t see the point.”
“Maybe it’s from being on board so long with a hardened atheist.”
“One and the same.”
She grinned. “He’s not an atheist.”
That surprised him even more. “He sure could’ve fooled me.”
“I’m surprised about that,” she smiled knowingly. “You’ve had training in reading people, probably as good as mine.”
“I do see something quite spiritual in him,” he mused. “That much is true.”
“As do I.”
“Is that how you’ve come to believe he’s not an atheist?”
She shook her head. “It’s in his actions. He’s fond of believing they’re inspired by cold, calculating pragmatism, but …”
“He was a believer once. A very devout one. And then …”
She nodded. “War.”
“There is wealth that has nothing to do with money.”
“Only when I left the House did I see that. You’ve got it, Shepherd.”
He bowed his head. “That’s very kind of you, Inara.”
“It’s the truth.”
“And Mal? Does he have that wealth too, you think?”
“Most definitely. If only …”
“… he’d see it.”
They’d spoken together.
“Inara! Oh my dear, it’s so, so good to see you!”
She snapped her head up. Clarissa Ramudy, fresh from the spa and towel twisted over her head, had entered the Garden Room with her entourage.
Inara stood and took her outstretched hands. “Your Grace …”
“Don’t you look the essence of refinement and breeding!” crowed Mrs. Ramudy. “I was just telling Geni Weisenworth yesterday that I haven’t seen you even twice and should call you up for a visit! How have you been, my dear? Please, sit, sit! We desperately need to catch up!”
She turned to a slave, one of six. “More coffee. And bring some scones.”
The servant bowed low and strode off. The rest waited diligently, hands behind their backs.
She beamed at Inara. “I just returned from the Calisco Conference. What a treat!”
“I heard about it.”
“So many changes coming. I’m not one for change, generally speaking, but these truly are for the best.”
“Yes. As I understand it, Academy requirements, House admission rules, that sort of thing … right?”
“It’s going to be a brave new world for Companions,” stated Mrs. Ramudy surely, patting Inara’s hands. “Our role with the Allied Planets has always been a solid one; now it’s going to be more foundational than ever. We have positioned ourselves as an indispensable cornerstone of our proud
Inara considered that when she entered Companion training she had no interest in politics or affairs of state. If Companions were a cornerstone of the
Alliance, they were an unseen one and there
only at the whims of the wealthy and powerful, for whom a Companion was a
necessary status symbol. Companions had insinuated themselves over the years
into palaces and estates and “mansions”—huge spacecraft owned by the
superwealthy and influential, and their influence in such places had grown. The
change had been very gradual at first. But these days Companion influence was
felt all over the Core, and at the very highest levels, especially Parliament.
Baron Ramudy personally kept five “dedicated” Companions, and constantly
complained about having to pamper them.
Inara still had no interest in politics and affairs of state. Her time aboard Serenity had changed her from one concerned about appearances and appropriate attire and habits and culture and training to desiring only freedom and the ecstatic jolt of breaking atmo and the sometimes frightening uncertainty of a new day. If there were any concerns about politics, it was for those many she had met in her travels: the poor and destitute and those with absolutely no voice in Clarissa Ramudy’s “proud
The coffee and scones were served, and she made small talk with her hostess.
“You are of such exquisite breeding,” commented Clarissa after a lull in conversation, appraising Inara with a tight smile.
“Thank you, Grace,” said Inara humbly.
Mrs. Ramudy reached for her hands, squeezed them. “Just look at you! Everything you do is with such style, such quiet culture and refinement.” Her face darkened slightly. “I had such a difficult time finding you! When I heard you were …” She released her hands and turned in her seat and addressed one of her entourage, a very good-looking young black man. “Where did we send that invitation wave, Gordes?”
“Server four forty-eight, Madam. The RSVP came back from Triumph.”
Clarissa turned back in her seat, her face aghast. “Triumph! Oh my dear, what in God’s holy name is on Triumph?”
Inara couldn’t put a rein on her tongue.
“A lot of dust, actually. And wild horses, which is why we were there.”
“ ‘We’?” said Mrs. Ramudy with disdainful suspicion.
Inara regretted saying anything. She took a sip of coffee.
“ ‘A Companion is like a diamond,’ ” she quoted from the iconic The Ways of a Companion as she set her cup down. “ ‘Refined from rough stone, her gleaming facets forget nothing of what they lost to become so cultured and graceful.’ ”
Clarissa held her steely gaze on her. And then it softened into pleading.
“Inara! Inara! Right there, don’t you see? Right there! You are a natural! You must—must—take the robes of the House Priestess of Madrassa! Oh my beautiful, sweet Inara … What a diamond you have become! Joshua would’ve been so, so proud! I honestly doubt he would’ve taken anyone else but you! He was so in love with you …”
The mention of Joshua was inevitable, and when it finally came, Inara inwardly sighed. What Clarissa did not know, and what Inara would never tell her, was that Joshua Ramudy opposed the Allied Planets and his unearned privilege. He was passionate about his desire to be of service to those on the Rim, and held no grudge against them. When the
drafted him, he went, of course, for conscientious objectors went by a
different name: dead. He thought he would do his duty and return home only to
leave again. He knew the Rim planets would still be there after the war, and he
was bound and determined to use his fortune to do what he could for them.
And then he died.
There was a lot of Joshua in Mal, despite Mal’s best efforts to come off as a shrewd and wily businessman unconcerned with nothing but a payday. It was in fact the thing that most attracted her to him. He even looked a bit like she thought Joshua would look at the same age.
She smiled sadly, as she had many times before. “And I loved him, Your Grace.”
Clarissa Ramudy’s eyes glazed over with moisture, as they had all those times in the past. “Oh …” she crowed, “oh …”
But then the moisture disappeared, leaving behind a harsh, appraising tint.
“I’ve pushed up the date for the election to Friday. I am determined to see you put those House Priestess robes on!”
That was a shock. “Friday?”
Serenity was due to land Friday!
“You are going to be the savior of House Madrassa!” said Mrs. Ramudy with stern assertiveness. “Of that I have no doubt!”
She waited for Inara to respond. Inara held up the mask of a smiling face with a faltering spirit. She hoped Her Grace didn’t notice.
The essence of being a Companion was deception. Now more than ever, she needed her training.
For a long time she thought there was no other way to be in the Verse, no other way to create a life worth living. Deception: polite wind aimed at those who could advance her ambitions. Deception: masks and bows and curtsies and light lunches and clients who’d take their leave of her convinced she found them the most exquisite, the most sensitive lover, who knew them better than anyone. Deception: passionate kisses sent forth from a disinterested soul; fragile caresses against pressing thoughts for the morrow; the soft cry of ecstasy from a body that felt nothing remotely close to ecstasy …
That was how she had been trained. And that was how she had lived her life to this point.
Friday that life would be cemented in place for good and for ever. And she knew that was what Clarissa Ramudy wanted most of all.
She had refused the robes once. She knew she couldn’t do it twice.
She was trapped.
With a smile that threatened to break a sweat on her forehead, she kept her gaze on Mrs. Ramudy and bowed her head in deference. “I am ready to serve, Your Grace.”
“Oh, excellent!” cried Clarissa, grabbing her hands once again. “House Madrassa will once again rule under your stewardship, of that I have no doubts, no doubts whatsoever!”
She turned to Gordes. “I believe this calls for some champagne! Please, service for all, service for all!”
The entire entourage bowed. “Thank you, Your Grace.” “Thank you, Mrs. Ramudy.” “Thank you, ma’am …”
She squeezed Inara’s hands. “I am so proud of you!”
Inara bowed her head. “Your Grace.” She then added, “I have a request to make, if I may …”
“My parents have sent several crates of items of my belongings on Osiris here, which should get here, coincidentally, Friday …”
“Shrewd, very shrewd,” said Clarissa approvingly, giving her a sideways smile. “You anticipated this. Excellent. You need the orbitmaster to let the courier land? Well, have no worries, my dear. Give the courier’s postal code to the sheriff, and he’ll give them safe passage.”
“Thank you again, Your Grace.”
“Think nothing of it. Oh, I cannot wait! Friday will be glorious!”
“Yes,” said Inara quietly. “Yes, I believe it will be.”
Serenity settled slowly on pad G, which was generally reserved for postal carriers and was well out of the way. Inara waited at the perimeter, a nervous, impatient smile on her face.
She had spent the past four days in furious preparation, when she wasn’t busy glad-handing people at conferences and meetings, people who had been told this was the soon-to-be new Priestess of House Madrassa and who kowtowed appropriately at her presence, smiling kindly and ever so deceptively. This was the life she was leaving, for good and for ever. She knew that.
She persuaded the sheriff that Serenity needed full-rights passage to Londinium as well, which included complete security clearance: Serenity was, they were told, tasked to deliver VIPs back from that most central of Central Planets to celebrate her ascension to House Priestess.
That was the easy part of the deception.
The hard parts: contacting Serenity on a secured channel, and then setting up a false trail to explain her disappearance.
The first she managed through Baron Ramudy’s personal secretary, who allowed her to use his personal wave account, thinking, no doubt, that soon-to-be House Priestesses personally recommended by his wife should be granted such courtesies. Inara’s transmission was two seconds in length, and was scrambled and deleted immediately after being sent. It said only: “Come pick me up.”
The second required money—lots of money. Lots of untraceable money.
Her personal fortune was estimated at over three hundred million, much of it in various untouchable accounts and trusts, all with the highest security protocols protecting them. Several of those she could touch she had carefully squirreled away over the years into quite untraceable and completely illegal “transorbital” accounts. She’d done this with absolutely no one’s knowledge, and for one and only one reason: if Mal and his crew ever truly found themselves on the corner of No and Where with nothing left to keep them flying, those accounts would be there to ensure they could.
Ironic, she thought, that she’d access them now to keep her going.
Unhappy slaves weren’t hard to find, and that included Mrs. Ramudy’s Gordes. In the early dark of her last night on Bellerophon, he gave Inara what she was looking for: her disappearance would be called a kidnapping, witnessed by at least five indentured including him, each with records that, more or less, would protect them and bolster their claims that they saw her snatched by shadowy types as she made her way to the Placanard Observation Deck to watch the sunset. That particular deck was beneath the estate’s superstructure and could only be reached by a long elevator ride. Save for her many visits there the past three months, it was rarely frequented. Gordes saw to it that security cameras at the ostensible crime scene were down or destroyed.
The red-herring ship that the slaves would claim they saw her forced aboard would look nothing like Serenity.
There was one more issue. Pad G was secured—meaning monitored. Those cameras would have to be inoperable or pointing elsewhere when Serenity touched down. But try as she might, she could find no one to help her, and Gordes and his team did not have the proper access to deal with them in time.
Which was why, standing there and listening to Serenity’s mains lower, she was dressed as an indentured servant, her hair cut short and under a cap, her hand on a trolley. Gordes and his team surrounded her, their large bodies keeping her face hidden from the cameras, ready to offload personal effects that didn’t exist. They’d have to improvise something on the fly.
Mal had no idea what was going on. Assuming his new pilot unscrambled her message to “Come pick me up,” he’d be left to intuit that something was afoot. She’d have to let him and the crew know the deal—also on the fly. As breathlessly as she had worked to deceive Clarissa Ramudy and everyone at the Tanbaness, she knew the wave Mal had originally sent her would probably be enough to get him and the ship tagged for bounding and searching. It was all a matter of time and timing.
“Businesslike, Miss Serra, businesslike,” said Gordes, who stood calmly next to her. “Let us do our jobs. You do yours. Ready? Stay just behind me, and let’s go.”
Serenity’s hatch lowered, and there was Mal and Kaylee, looking around for Inara and not seeing her fifty feet away as she pushed a trolley towards them.
Gordes reached Mal, bowed to him, and then said something to him that made him stare, then gape at Inara for a split second before saying, “Go on. We’ll help.”
Kaylee finally spotted her, and went to run and hug her, but, confused by her dress and then by Mal, who calmly took her arm and turned her about, said, “Oh, right. Right! Let’s get to work. We’ve got a lot of stuff here …”
The slaves offloaded eight large crates, which were, as it turned out, empty. But they had fancy electronic locks and were exactly the type the wealthy would use to send their possessions here and there.
Once inside, Inara took her cap off. Kaylee flew into her arms, and then Simon and River hugged her, and Deader introduced herself after Lenore shook her hand. Jayne gaped at her shorn head and blinked. “It is … uh … very pleasant to see you again, Inara.” Mal thanked the slaves, then brought the hatch up. He turned to her. “I take it we need to get out of here right now?”
She nodded. “But don’t look like you’re hurrying. Please.”
“You won’t believe how nonchalant I can make us look,” said Deader, and quickly mounted the stairs for the bridge.
“Those crates didn’t come cheap,” he complained.
She had learned long ago that offering to buy him anything was an exercise in utter futility, so she said, “It’s good to see you again, Captain.”
“And you,” he smiled, looking her up and down. “I don’t mind tellin’ you that you look good with short hair.”
“And dressed as a slave?”
“That don’t hurt either.”
She gave him a tired smile, having pushed down the wicked one. “I think we should explore your dented psychosexual tendencies some other time, don’t you?”
Genuine surprise glanced his face. “Is that a date?”
She walked away from him for the stairs and her shuttle. Kaylee, next to her, listened wide-eyed while trying to suppress giggles of astonishment.