Chapter 6

Leaving the hearing Inara 's companion training served her well, no one noticed anything amiss in her bearing or expression as she returned to her quarters. Though there was ice in her veins and fear clutching at her stomach her face remained lovely and gracious. Especially to the three high priestesses.

She felt removed, as if nothing she was seeing or hearing as she passed was real. As if this were a dream she would wake up from. Sitting down she noticed her hands were shaking, that her breath was coming in short gulps. She closed her eyes and willed her body to relax, as she did so River's words from three days ago floated into her mind. "They all did lie. Breath and motion, day after day, day after day." What on earth had she meant?

She had played politics at house Madrassa. Contending for the place of High Priestess at her house was no small feat for a woman of her age, and if a more attractive, if albeit disturbing, offer from an attractive, if albeit disturbing, young man, hadn't been on the table she would be there right now.

It was the work of a few keystrokes to find out the names of the High Priestesses at her hearing, they were all from Sihnon, and one, Priestess Rostov, had a long contract history with a certain Alistair Davies. Inara winced. Memories flooded back. She shook herself and turned to the other two.

One, Priestess Woodhouse, was simply an ambitious woman, High Priestess at a young age and plenty of social movement among the right set, she obviously chose her clients for the political power they would give her. The last Priestess, Priestess Imbora, had only recently obtained the title of High Priestess, after a long career devoid of politics. It was odd. There was a knock on her door, and she pushed her cortex screen aside to answer.

It was one of her students, a girl named Fiona with lovely red hair, Inara turned to greet her. After spending nearly two hours parrying questions with politeness Fiona left, satisfied Inara had told her secrets in confidence. Of course this was just an illusion, one she created many times before in her time with the Guild.

She glanced at the cortex, hungry for more answers, but she noticed the late hour. Companions did not stay up late, at least not in order to satisfy curiosity. The best way to maintain beauty was to keep to strict hygiene and sleep habits. She laid down, and though her mind whirled at first, fell into a peaceful slumber.

She spent the next three days chatting with her students, parrying their questions, while trying to find out as much information as she could. Miss Unagi had been transferred to their house quite recently, about a week before Inara's arrival. She too was from Sihnon, the girls all bubbled. It was odd, this wasn't a working house, not really, and she was young not qualified to teach yet.

As Inara moved among the students, she happened across Miss Unagi speaking to the receptionist. Inara smiled and engaged her in conversation, eager to find what drew her to the Rim, but she was evasive, wishing for Inara to leave her alone with the receptionist. As she was leaving Inara heard her instructing the receptionist that if 'that man' waved she was to say she wasn't there.

Inara frowned, companions did not usually instruct receptionist's to fabricate lies to clients, it wouldn't do for them to feel slighted by the Companion turning them down. Feeling confused she retired to her quarters to try and piece the puzzles around her together, only to be summoned to another hearing.

Priestess Woodhouse smiled at her as she entered. The room was far less formal this time, with only one of the priestesses was in attendance.

"Please sit." She gestured to a chair kitty corner from her own. Inara sat down gingerly. This was the sort of hearing she had anticipated upon her return to the training house. The sort of hearing she had been prepared to attend.

"I understand you've been spending your days with your students and your evenings on the cortex."

Inara dipped her head, and answered, "Yes, I wished to spend what time I could mentoring my students here. In the time I taught them I have become quite fond of many of them."

She paused, and the Priestess didn't fill the silence so Inara addressed the second half of the implied question. "I was curious. I have never heard of a hearing requiring the attention of three High Priestesses."

Priestess Woodhouse smiled, "There was no requirement. But I believe Priestess Rostov was most anxious to retain her power over House Madrassa." Inara nodded, though she was confused. Priestess Woodhouse smiled at her. "Although, I think your return will change that."

Inara looked at her, still full of fear at the idea of returning to that chapter in her life, and her mask must have slipped because the Priestess continued. "I know about the business with the Davies boy, but he has not been on Sihnon for several months. His father has posted him to Ariel, and there are many among the Sihnon elite that clamor for your return."

Inara smiled, gratified, and if she were honest, flattered. "These are unusual times Miss Serra. The Rim is ready for expansion. Thanks in part to you and this Training House the Guild has decided to begin expanding, and would like your expertise in the matter."

Everything clicked. The intimidation of a few days before was simply politics being played out, with Priestess Woodhouse the winner. Or perhaps the past few days were a taste of the retribution she would experience if she left the Guild. She knew Nandi suffered greatly when she left, and Inara had no wish to do the same. But to be offered such a thing. She felt honored. The position they were offering was greater than what her own ambitions had been.

They spent the next hour discussing the finer points of her return to Sihnon, and the role she would play with the expansion into the Rim. With a buoyant smile she thanked Priestess Woodhouse, and returned to her quarters with a ticket for the next liner to Sihnon in hand.

For the next two days she mixed and mingled with her students and those at the training house. She spoke at length with the Priestesses, finding them all excellent conversationalists, and with Sheydra, head of this Training House. Though she tried many times to engage Miss Unagi in conversation, they never got past opening parries. Thinking it wouldn't matter as she was leaving for Sihnon in a few days, she stopped trying to engage the woman in conversation.

Alone one morning in her chambers Inara sighed as she handled the liner ticket back to Sihnon. Sihnon was where she belonged. She had her grand adventure, and now it was time for her to return and reclaim what was hers. She had been a coward to leave as she had, she saw that now. Being on Serenity taught her there were many ways to be brave, and as time wore on the shame of her flight had bothered her more and more. Something else had bothered her on board as well, something she refused to acknowledge. It was time for her play the game. With what she knew about the Davies family and the Rim within a short time she could a member of the Triumvirate who governed the Guild.

It was what she wanted. More than what she wanted. No Companion would have her experiences on the Rim, or her political and monetary resources. She could expand the Guild into the Rim improving the lives of women there. No more whore houses with girls strung out on drops.

She would bid the crew a final goodbye, and then set out to ply her formidable political acumen in a glorious career. She felt like singing, or skipping, but did neither as she sat breathing the incense on her altar. The smoke curling around her brought back memories. Something, or rather many someones, niggling at her. The crews faces appeared. Her heart emptied. She belonged here, but her impending victory seemed empty without them, her friends.

Friends. She'd never had a friend until Kaylee bounced into her life, towing the others along behind. Somehow, political machinations between Companions just didn't seem as satisfying as she remembered them being. A knock interrupted, decision wavering and emotions roiling she opened it.

Her eyes widened marginally in surprise. Miss Unagi was at the door.

"I'm so sorry to disturb you Miss Serra, but I wanted to get to know you a little better."

Inara smiled and opened the door in invitation. Miss Unagi mumbled a few more apologies for disturbing her, but Inara didn't hear. A dull roar was building in her hears as she recognized the figure standing behind her. Raymond Davies. He simpered. Inara took an involuntary step back, and he followed her into her chambers.

Miss Unagi apologized for not warning her, but her eyes said otherwise. Inara felt frozen. Her fear from years past rose extinguishing her newly found flame of valor. He was breathing fast. Inara forced a smile. He stammered his greeting and kissed her hand. Hoping to let him down easy she smiled back. Miss Unagi remained standing near the door a small triumphant smile on her face.

"How wonderful to see you Raymond. It has been too long."

"Yes, it has. I had hoped to see you much sooner, but then you've been hard to track down."

"Yes, I've been doing ambassadorial work for the Guild out on the Rim."

"Really? Well, I guess we must shine the light of civilization where we can." He smiled, and grasped her hand, leaning toward her. "I am so glad you're here my dear. I've been simply desolate without you."

Inara's cheeks hurt from holding her smile. She attempted to remove her hand, but he only grasped it tighter.

"I cannot believe that to be true Raymond, I have it on good authority that more than one heiress was very interested in your company."

He waved his hand, "Them? They are nothing compared to you. You are a jewel bao bei." He leaned toward her, "And that's why you are going to come with me."

She stood still, mute and cold. "You belong with me, always." He dragged her closer to him, not noticing, or not caring, when she stumbled a little. "You must see that now."

Inara stared at Miss Unagi, pleading with her eyes for intervention. She held a finger to her lips as she left the chamber, closing the door quietly behind her. Inara, feeling panicky, turned back to Raymond.

"Yes, but Raymond, these sort of things must be entered into properly. The Guild-"

"I remember." His voice went hard, as did his grip on her arm. "Last time I asked you wanted me to jump through all sorts of hoops." His tone dangerous.

"I know my dear, but you see, my hands are tied, by the Guild." She pled.

"Yes, I know, that's why we're not going to go through the Guild."

"What do you mean?"

"We're going to leave. Just the two of us. I've arranged it so if you don't return to Sihnon within a fortnight your registration will invalidate."

Her heart froze at his words.

He smiled, "I've worked out everything, came on a new luxury yacht-you'll want for nothing bao bei."

She couldn't move.

"Come now, I know you'll miss your work, " he sneered at the word, "for a time, but I promise, this will be much better. You'll see."

He pulled a needle from his suit pocket. She struggled, but he smacked her hard across the face, and dragged her closer. Pulling away, she ran toward the door. He caught her, and hitting her in her still bruised ribs, knocked her to the ground. She called out in fear, but no one came running.

"Come bao bei."

He said more, but she couldn't hear. She struggled against him, but he overpowered her plunging the needle into her arm. Panicky sobs escaped her lips, she knew she should scream, but she couldn't sustain any volume. As blackness spread across her vision she tried to twist away, but he grasped her hair forcing her neck back violently. She cried out in pain and shock, her eyes searching for a weapon. Then everything went black.

Inara awoke with a start, she was lying on a sumptuous settee in what appeared to be a small shuttle. It was decorated in rich golds and beige, Raymond was sitting next to her caressing her face. They were in the air. There was nothing to be done. Once inside his yacht there would be no escape. Having lived on Serenity she knew how easy it would be to contain her within, to prevent her leaving, to contacting anyone off ship, to anyone but those he wished to even know of her existence. He smiled at her.

"I'm so sorry bao bei, but I had to free you from their control."

She smiled back at him, "Of course, thank you, Raymond."

He nodded, then leaned back into his chair, beckoning her to him. Disjointed and frozen she sat stiffly on the arm of his chair. He ran his hand along her back and began to nuzzle at her neck.

It was all she could to remain still. If she were to survive it was imperative for him to believe she was fully submissive and compliant. Turning to face him she kissed his neck sighing deeply. He pulled her down into his lap. She moaned in fear, lighting a feral blaze in his eyes.

She felt the jolt of the shuttle connecting with the yacht, Raymond escorted her inside. He was bubbling with plans for their future, telling her about the wonders of space travel aboard his state of the art spaceship. She followed.

After ensconcing her inside the spacious and richly furnished estate chambers he left to make sure everything was ready for take off. She sank into the first chair she stumbled against. She stared blankly at her hands, disbelieving they were hers. She looked up, finding she was seated in front of a vanity. She looked at herself in the mirror. She didn't look like a Companion with a meteoric future. Gritting her teeth she began to correct that. As she applied her lipstick klaxons began to blare.

She went through her toilet; letting down her hair, brushing it and putting it back up again for best effect. She was a Companion. She would always be a Companion. She ignored the shakiness of her wrist as she worked. She felt the ship lift and shudder, and then Raymond was back with her.

He seemed out of sorts, angry, and she spoke to him soothingly. She found herself assuring him the ship would break atmo, though it sometimes felt as though it wouldn't. She smiled, touched his hand to comfort him, when the main lighting shut down. Raymond left her for the accompanying ensuite and she was alone again.

She continued her toilet, putting on the jewellery left out for her. The doors to the chamber wrenched open. She stood up and turning she saw Mal beckoning her . Behind her she heard the door to the spacious bathroom click open. She glared at Mal, knowing if Raymond thought for one instant his treasure was in danger he would react violently. She had to allay his fears if any of them were going to get out of this alive.

"I'm not going anywhere." She said haughtily, willing Mal to understand.

"What do ya mean yer not goin' anywhere?"

He lowered his pistol, hurt and confusion on his features. Raymond was facing her, hidden from Mal's view. She took a deep breath, "You shouldn't have come Mal. This is where I belong." Her voice sounded unnatural, strangled, but Raymond smiled at her. She hoped to lure him between her and Mal, but he moved laterally closer to her instead.

"Mal, we gotta go!" She heard Jayne yell.

"Bì zuǐ!" Mal yelled back.

Raymond extended his hand toward her, beckoning her to come closer as he spoke, "Bao bei."

She hesitated for a moment, feeling Mal's eyes on her. She wished she were brave. She wished she hadn't run from Sihnon, that she had instead stood and fought, but she hadn't. She ran, she made the decision to run before they even offered a payoff. She wished she'd stayed on Serenity, been brave enough to accept something new. She wished she'd run out of her room the moment she saw him, but there was no point wishing any more. Raymond moved confidently, pistol in hand. He reached out to grab her, and she knew she would let him, let him use her as a shield, or let him end her now, she would yield. She closed her eyes not wanting to see where he pointed the pistol and flinched as she heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire.

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