Zen II: Tic Tac Tao

1. A Game of You

So many things she has chosen to forget. But even now, she can summon the ghost of how it was, the crisp smell of early mornings, the cherry just coming into blossom, before the starling chatter of young voices shattered the peace.

There is no peace here. Always eyes watching.

She had learnt early to smile, to please people. The art of seeming, how to hide her thoughts, for individuality was not prized, save for the gracious and mannered. Little fret of resentment; she had been given young to their care, a pretty child. Perhaps the dim memory that was 'mother' had wanted a better life for her. Or perhaps she had just been tired...Still, it left one wonderfully free to choose; more than once, she had been punished for spinning wonderful tales to the other trainees of her past. But not too severely - other eyes observed. There were lessons to be learned, advancement to be had for one who could adapt, who could absorb the shifting realities of life into her very bones and skin. One mask after another, used and discarded, she moved behind them, free in her inner self, that would not admit to any ties or bonds. Even now.

No escape from here. An orbital, above the sea and clouds. Such irony, to spread the glittering riches of the world beneath the feet of those who would not touch it again. They move swiftly to the exercise dome, turn their faces up to the light, stand solitary and caught within the web of their own thoughts, reluctant to leave and return to their rooms. No bars here. What need is there, in a place that has no oxygen outside its walls?

Called from her thoughts by the stolid presence of a guard at the door.

"You got a visitor."

"Why, thank you. I'm always at home to callers."

And she wonders who it can be, as she is escorted down the corridor. Visitors are rare, and she has not had one before. Maybe a bleeding heart from some rehabilitation program? But heaven is rarely so profligate with its bounty.

She sits in the small room, a perfectly functional and sterile space, table and two chairs moulded into the very fabric of the floor. Harsh lighting leaches colour from her skin, and the utilitarian overalls clash dreadfully with her auburn hair. But there is still a measure of mockery in the eyes, a wry twist to the full mouth. A twist that becomes more pronounced when she sees her visitor.

The woman who steps into the room is so out of place it jars the eyes. A delicate little porcelain doll of a woman, in the richly coloured formal gown and over-robe of a Companion, smooth wings of dark hair cupping a girlish face. The eyes, though - no child ever had eyes like these. Dark, assessing and cruel. And so much older than the face they are set in.

A graceful wave of her hand, and the guard actually leaves. The Lady Ruksha sits with perfect poise and grace, settles her sleeves formally, dips her head in grave (mocking?) courtesy. The prisoner half-expects a tea service to appear.

"It took us a while to find you."

"You taught me well."

No more than the truth. A dozen years or more have left no mark upon this child-woman. She still looks as fresh and innocent as the day she first broke a trainee's arm to demonstrate how deceptive that appearance is. The prisoner touches her elbow in an old reflex.

"Yolanda Haymer." A slight question.

"It serves as well as any name."

"Perhaps you would prefer...Saffron."

Now that provokes a reaction. A spark of something for an instant behind those eyes.

"I haven't used that name in a while."

"Not since Ms Inara Serra left you in a garbage can to be arrested."

A very definite reaction. Ruksha allows the ghost of a smile to flit about her lips. Saffron's eyes narrow.

"Is there a point to this? Because I have such a full social schedule..."

"We, too, have a score to settle with Ms Serra." There is something in the tone that makes Saffron grow still, wary as any animal scenting danger. 'We', in this context, means more to her than most.

The Guild of Companions takes care of its own. Spread throughout the worlds, the Houses produce young women (and the occasional young man) of accomplishment and culture, fitting Companions for those of wealth and status. They move in the highest circles, mingle with the captains of industry and the policy makers, those people who determine whether whole planets will thrive or die. To provide service is their mantra; to contract with a Companion is to find anything from a perfect dinner guest for a company function, to solace for the loss of a long-cherished spouse. They comfort and heal. But the secrets they know - for some, those who come within a finger's width of power can feel its infection.

Every organisation needs an...executive arm, as it were. The sort of people who can clean up inconvenient little messes. The Parliament has recourse to Operatives, through the Military Council, industrial concerns hire freelance 'contractors'. And the Guild, when legal options are exhausted, and all favours have been called in, have...They have no name that has ever been admitted to. They are merely a rumour. But the political reality is such that a Guild that wishes to keep its finger on the pulse of life in the 'verse must necessarily dabble that finger in some murky waters. Many Companions will go through their entire careers and lives without knowledge of this, serene and untroubled. It is just as well. They are not a healthy thing to know too much of.

"I have been sat out on a rock at the edge of space, teaching the roundheel daughters of jumped-up peasants how to dance." The delicate fingers do not flex, but the suggestion of claws remains. "A watching brief." That does not bode well for Ms Serra. They can be very patient. "And she derailed months of work. Unfortunately, she is favoured by the Guild Council. Still, it would not distress me greatly, were something to happen to her." A wave of the hand does not quite dismiss the matter, lets it hang pointedly for a beat. "But our concern is as always, for a lost sister."

Saffron is genuinely confused, deeply apprehensive.

"And what has this to do with me?"

"You will be released into our custody, and we shall make ourselves responsible for your rehabilitation." A small picture is drawn from a sleeve, displayed briefly upon fingertips, then smoothly palmed again. No street magician could have faulted the move, and for certain, no camera caught it.

Dark eyes, dark hair, a drowned and waifish look. Something not quite right there.

"She travels with old acquaintances of yours." Ah. Vengeance as an added incentive. "Find her. Return her to the House of the Jade Lotus on Sihnon."

"And - my acquaintances?"

"As you will." Amused indifference.

Saffron nods, quietly considering. Let out on an invisible leash, to do their bidding. Well, leashes can be snapped. Ruksha nods, as if hearing that thought.

"And, in case you were thinking of just disappearing - " Nothing colder than space, save that smile, those eyes. "It's an old trick, but so very effective. When you were in the Infirmary last month, for that cracked tooth..."

She already knows, before the words are said. Nerve toxin. Bonded within her body, an enemy within the walls.

So, her alternative. Sit and wait for...the slight tremor in the hand. A blur of vision. A cough that has the slightest blush within. For sense to fail, the slow loss of dignity. There are so many ways death could creep upon her, and she does not doubt that it will.

In some cultures, the stories of demons make them beautiful.