Pleasure and pain, though directly opposite are contrived to be constant companions.
I rose to consciousness with a pounding in my head as though I had been drinking wine for hours, though I had no memory of doing so. All I could remember was the hired shuttle spiraling out of control, the pilot swearing and wrenching at the controls, while Joscelin returned the fire of whatever attacker had sought to bring us down.
Of a surety, they had succeeded. And yet this felt like no abductor’s quarters I had ever been in, either in play or reality—and I have experienced both, in my line of work. Rather than being lashed to a cross or across a table, I was tucked into a comfortable bed in a room that smelled pleasingly of attar of roses.
“Phèdre. You’re awake.”
The voice was sweet, gentle, feminine, and one that I hadn’t heard in years. It tugged at my heart and I forced my eyes open despite the pain.
“Inara,” I whispered.
Her lovely face hovered over mine and she smiled. “Stay quiet, bao bei,” she said. “I’ll get you a drink.”
The water was of the kind one finds on long-haul ships: boiled to within an inch of its life and then filtered the rest of the way. I drank it as though it was the finest tea a Companion ever brewed, and listened as Inara told me where I was and how I had come to be there.
The shuttle had been brought down, but before those who had targeted us could take it, they were foiled by the ship Inara flew with. Serenity. I startled at the name, because it was not at all the kind of crew I’d ever thought Inara would run with, and she must have noticed because she stopped to shake her head slightly.
“Whatever it is you’re thinking, Phèdre, you’re probably far off the mark.”
“Only that I’m grateful you’re here, whatever the reason,” I said simply.
Inara didn’t say what had happened to the crew of the ship that had attacked us, and I was glad of it. This far from the Core, it might as well have been Reavers. Although if it had been, I doubted that either Inara or I would be where we were.
“Where am I now?” I had a vague sense of lush, brocaded draperies; along with the comfort of the bed and the rose-scented air, it made me realize the one possible option before Inara spoke it.
“My private shuttle on board Serenity.”
“And the rest of my crew?” It felt safe to ask her.
“Your pilot didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.”
“My—” I didn’t know quite how to describe Joscelin. “I travel with a man, a kind of bodyguard.”
I startled at her words and she laughed this time. “I’m hardly the only Companion with a hit of infamy to their name, Phèdre dear.” Her fingers touched my lips lightly and I let her put two small pills onto my tongue. They were as dull-tasting as the water that I washed them down with, but I felt their effect almost immediately as they worked to erase the pain in my head.
“Where is he?”
“We’ve a good doctor,” Inara said almost absently, speaking of the pills. “Your Joscelin is in the galley, eating whatever it is River’s found most entertaining to offer, and discussing theology with our Shepherd.”
I began to sit up, but Inara stopped me with a hand on my shoulder, urging me back down to the pillows. “Not yet. Let the pills work first.”
Considering the sharp bolt of pain that had shot through my head from temple to temple as I moved, she was right.
The first thing that came to mind as Inara led me through the ship to the galley was a sense of how homelike the ship was. The cargo area we passed over was utilitarian, but a makeshift gym and a basketball hoop kept it from being entirely business.
Inara caught me looking. “We have guest quarters, although they’re not as nice as mine.” I didn’t think she was intentionally trying to evade the questions she surely knew I had, but nonetheless she was. “Don’t worry, you won’t be bedding down in here.”
“Anywhere with a flat surface will do.” I stumbled on one of the steps up to the dining area and Inara caught my wrist.
She must have felt the way that I shivered at her rough grasp. She let my wrist slowly slip from her fingers and looked at me with keen eyes.
“What did they do to you at House Shahrizai?”
“They didn’t do anything that it wasn’t within me to do anyway.”
“I know that Melisande—”
“Don’t mention her. Please.”
“She took you away from us,” Inara continued anyway, and I remembered her steel backbone. “She took you away and then all we ever heard about you was that she was trotting you around the Core like her prized pet.”
It wasn’t untrue.
“House Shahrizai teaches different lessons to House Madrassa,” I said shortly. “Haven’t you ever had a client who was desirous of pain?”
“Many... but mostly on the receiving end. Men who wanted to be tied up and whipped.”
“That’s not unusual. Did you play the dominatrix for them?”
“Me, covering this up in black leather and metal studs?” She laughed. “Can you imagine?”
I looked her over, head to toe, without quite thinking about it. “Yes, actually, I can.”
Inara smiled. “I grew used to it in time, but it’s never been my favorite.”
“Whereas I... it’s not that I’ve grown accustomed to pain. It’s who I am.”
She gave me one last thoughtful look as we approached the galley, the sound of voices and laughter coming to my ears. “You have always been an enigma, Phèdre. I suppose this is one more facet to that.”
“Perhaps I took the Companion adage about holding an air of mystery a little too much to heart,” I replied, and thus we were both laughing as we entered the dining area.
It must have been the sound of my laughter that called Joscelin out of his chair; he swallowed the space between us in three long strides and crushed me in his arms.
“Careful!” A dark-haired man rose from his seat. “Inara, she should be resting, that’s why I left her with you.”
“Phèdre is terrible at resting when she ought to be.” Joscelin drew back enough to kiss me, keeping it light and quick, though I could sense he wanted to make it more. His relief, too, was palpable.
“Not as bad as you are,” I returned, pushing his chest with one hand, to absolutely no effect. “Remember the time—”
A loud, not at all subtle clearing of the throat caught my attention. Joscelin took a step back, letting me go, and sat back down.
“This is a very sweet reunion and all, but before you two go ridin’ off into the sunset together, I’d like to know a little more about you.” The man speaking wore all brown, and I saw the ill-concealed gun at his side—though perhaps that was intentional. “We’ve already been talking to your consort here, but I confess I’m not entirely clear on who you are.”
“Mal, this is Phèdre nó Madrassa,” Inara said. I didn’t correct her on my House name; that alone would have taken an hour to explain. “Phèdre, this is Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. And Simon Tam, our doctor.” The dark-haired man smiled at me. “River, his sister; Wash and Zoë Washburne; Kaylee—”
“Oh my gosh, you and Inara look so alike!” Kaylee blurted out before clapping one hand over her mouth.
It was true, in a way; while Inara’s skin was far duskier than mine, we shared lustrous dark hair and, while she didn’t bear the same red mark in her eye that I did, we had very similar deep brown irises.
“—Jayne Cobb,” Inara went on with only a quirk to her lips to acknowledge Kaylee’s remark, “and our Shepherd, Book.” The older, dark-skinned man nodded his head to me.
I dipped a curtsy, aware of how truncated the introduction was, but unable to stop myself from the gesture that had been trained into me. “Thank you all for taking Joscelin and I on board. We appreciate the rescue.”
“I’m sure you do. What I don’t understand is what a fancy-ass Companion such as yourself is doing this far out on the Rim.” Captain Reynolds looked ready to wait all day for an explanation he believed; I just hoped he would believe the truth.
“Properly speaking, her full title is téngtòng chéngzài zhě,” Joscelin said more than a little curtly.
“Pain-bearer,” Doctor Tam said. “Loosely translated, anyway. Most languages don’t have a simple word for it.” He gave me a slow, thoughtful look. “Especially because the last known téngtòng chéngzài zhě was in my grandfather’s time.”
“Ain’t that just some kind of masochist?” Jayne, who had been cleaning under his thumbnail with a knife, finally contributed to the conversation. “Plenty of folk’re like that.”
Zoë smacked the back of his head. “Obviously not, if she’s doing it as part of her Companion work.” She looked at me. “Excuse him, ma’am; he has gǒu de lǐmào.”
“At least I speak plain.”
“A little too plain, sometimes.”
“Plain Jayne,” River said dreamily, and I realized there was something not quite right about her. Perhaps she’d been through some trauma, or had some damage done to her. “Plain and simple.”
“Hey now, I ain’t—”
“Sit down,” Captain Reynolds snapped as Jayne rose from his seat.
“It’s a genetic oddity that makes Phèdre have the ability to experience pain as pleasure. It makes her very desirable as a Companion to certain people. And certain people don’t always live on the central planets.” Joscelin nodded to Inara. “But I’m sure you’re already aware that people of many professions go where the work is.”
“I’m not sure whether you’re wising off to me or being serious,” Captain Reynolds said slowly.
“He is quite serious, sir,” I said. “We’re only out here because I had a client to see. A client who probably assumes I’m dead by now.” And the part-fee he’d paid up front doubtless electronically removed from my account as well.
Inara sighed, the first to recognize my situation for what it was. “If the word gets out that you’re dead, you won’t be able to practice any more until you prove that you aren’t.”
“That sounds like a lot of paperwork,” the man she’d introduced as Wash said.
I laughed and shook my head. “You have no idea.”
I had some idea. It had been a lot of paperwork when I was handed over from House Madrassa to House Shahrizai, though I’d not been a part of the signing; a good deal more when I had been released from House Shahrizai, along with a lot of money changing hands. Convincing the ‘verse at large that I wasn’t dead would doubtless entail a lot more, of both the paperwork and the money.
I was mentally counting up the value of the credits in my accounts as well as the cash that Joscelin carried for places that didn’t take credit, and heard Captain Reynolds clear his throat again, when a sudden violent shudder shook the ship.
“Hit,” Wash said tersely, shoving back from the table and running for the bridge, Zoë right on his heels. Joscelin followed them; Captain Reynolds reached a hand after him, but Joscelin has ever been dexterous and besides, he was far too intent on seeing what was going on.
“They’re hailing us, Captain.” Zoë, poised in the doorway, looked like some kind of giant cat ready to pounce. “A woman. Looks wealthy.”
“Who shoots first and opens comms second?” Jayne asked.
“Not Reavers,” the Captain said with a degree of relief mixed with confusion. “They don’t bother with comms.”
“Someone getting our attention?” Kaylee looked as confused as the Captain sounded. “They could’ve just hailed us from the start.”
“Not this someone,” Joscelin said from behind Zoë. “She likes to play with people. Subvert their expectations.”
“Who the gorram hell are you talking about?” The Captain’s hand went to his gun. “Start making sense, right now.”
Without having seen whatever Joscelin had seen on the screen, I knew. I'd known from Zoë's brief description of her. “Her name is Melisande Shahrizai. She considers me to be her property.”
Captain Reynolds cocked an eyebrow. “And are you?”
“No!” I reined in my temper. “No. Not for a long time now.”
Inara reached out to touch my arm. “Is she the one who bought you away from House Madrassa?”
“Yes,” I said, knowing that Inara knew and simply meant for me to tell the others. “But believe me when I say, she no longer owns me. She gave that up when... she gave it up. She has no right to me.”
“Not sure I like the idea of folks ownin’ each other anyway. Wash!” Mal raised his voice. “Let’s get some evasive action happening.”
“On it, captain!” came the return call from the bridge.
“We can’t run forever,” I said. “And when she catches us, whatever she has in mind, it’ll be... convincing.”
Papers and money, to sway Serenity’s crew into believing I did belong to her. In all likelihood she was over there right now revising the amount of money upward to make the offer tempting enough for a crew who didn’t take kindly to the idea of slavery. She’d know how they felt. She’d know all I knew, if not more. The crew might not have been the sort of political movers and shakers she had taught me to know, but they were notorious enough to have done more than simply register on her radar.
And if she caught me, if they handed me over—
I might as well be dead.
Joscelin surely would be.
“Convincing how?” the Shepherd asked.
There was no time and no way to dissemble; I told them the truth, and all of them listened in silence. I heard Wash curse occasionally as he worked at outmaneuvering the ship following us, but aside from that none of them spoke until I was done.
Then, it was the Captain who spoke.
“We don’t sell people out, and we don’t sell people.”
“I might have some thoughts on how to be even more convincing than they are,” Shepherd Book said, almost at the same moment.
“How much respect does she have for the legal system?”
Joscelin laughed bitterly.
I sighed. “Melisande will turn the law any which way she can in her favor, but when she’s got her mind set on getting something that she wants...”
“Will she break it?” Book insisted.
“She’s not likely to.” Joscelin glanced back into the bridge. “She’d rather the ‘verse acknowledge what’s rightfully hers.”
“Any idea you have, Shepherd, you best make it happen fast,” the Captain warned.
Book ignored him, looking to Inara. “Inara. How many Companions does it take to formally declare a House?”
Inara’s face lit up for a moment, then fell. “Three. We don’t—”
“Kaylee,” Book said, overriding her protest, “how would you feel about dressing up for once? After all, we’re not above breaking the law.”
Kaylee’s face lit up and stayed that way. I could feel my own tentative smile growing. Joscelin just sighed, in the way that meant he knew something risky was about to happen.
“Let’s get to work. Inara, Kaylee, Phèdre, go and dress up. Wash, keep blocking her waves as long as you can.”
Captain Reynolds gave Book an askance look. “Don’t believe you’re in charge here, Shepherd.”
“Let him be, sir,” Zoë said. “How a Shepherd came to know so much about Companion rules I don’t know, but whatever comes out of it I’ve got to see.”
Kaylee was already bounding out of her seat toward Inara and I. “This is going to be so much fun!” she said gleefully.
I just had to hope I was right to agree with her.
We finally let Melisande’s wave through a bare twenty minutes later. Not to Serenity’s bridge, though, but to Inara’s shuttle, where Inara, composed and cool, sat in front of the screen. Kaylee was sitting beside me, trying to contain her excitement and failing.
“Companions don’t bounce,” I murmured to her. “You’ll break the illusion.” An illusion that was woven of a dress almost falling off her and some artful positioning of misinformation on the Cortex. I was mostly hoping to fluster Melisande long enough to get away, and Melisande had never flustered easily.
“I never get to dress up,” she murmured back.
“You have something of mine,” Melisande said, tone brooking no argument. “I want it back.”
“Companions don’t take kindly to being referred to as ‘it’,” Inara said, matching her tone exactly. “You can’t have her back.”
“She’s my rightful property. I have papers—”
“You have pretty lies dressed up to look like reality,” Inara cut her off. “Phèdre is a rightful member of my House.” She held up the papers that the Shepherd had so feverishly written up, pulling back just enough from the screen so that Melisande could look past her to see Kaylee and I seated sedately (if still a mite twitchy on Kaylee’s part).
“You have no House, Inara Serra,” Melisande said with scorn. “Even House Madrassa wouldn’t have you back now.”
“Perhaps not. But I don’t need them.”
It occurred to me that maybe I didn’t know as much about what Inara had been doing since we’d parted as I thought I did.
“I have my own House now,” Inara continued. “And this is where I need to be.”
“You have nothing,” Melisande spat.
Inara riffled the papers in front of the screen. “I have these. And if you go on the Cortex, you’ll see the same information. Inara Serra, formally ordained House Priestess—”
I heard Melisande suck in a deep breath. “You can’t have—”
“Kaywinnit Lee Frye, House Second.” Inara was smiling with the knowledge that she was rattling Melisande, as much as Melisande was trying to hide it. “And our deeply honored Companion and téngtòng chéngzài zhě, Phèdre nó Serenity.”
Melisande was terribly still, but I knew that she was looking up the information, and I knew that it would be right where Inara had promised it would be. My new House status, backed up by information that said it had been such for many months, not to mention a very clear—if rushed—transmission that I had sent not ten minutes ago to my client, assuring him I was alive and well and would be there for my assignation, albeit a day late. The crew had their skills, as I had mine, and they had their connections, as I had mine.
“Don’t think this is the end of this, Phèdre,” she said eventually, voice cold. “I won’t let some pillowfriend of yours come between us.”
I didn’t, not for a second, but as the screen went black I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders.
Phèdre nó Serenity.
It wasn’t my first House name, my most comforting House name. But I wasn’t just Phèdre of no house any more, and best of all, I wasn’t trapped into being Phèdre nó Shahrizai again.
Phèdre nó Serenity. I could get used to it.