"Multiple sightings… Unconfirmed… Unidentified motor vehicle… County-wide search… All personnel on alert… No sightings as of 2100 hours…"
Inara closed Captain Pasquale's latest report. She smiled. The others had not told her the details of their rescue plan and she had spent yesterday in a state of nervous exhaustion. She had excused herself from Don Andres' company, pleading heatstroke, but she had not dared log on to the government database until late that evening, fearing that she would alert the militia to the rescue attempt.
The relief that she felt knowing that Mal was now safe was fleeting. With the rescue completed, she was now forced to return to the frustrating task of investigating the real Scarlet Blade. Finding reports about him was not a problem: he had his own case file on the government database.
There was a definite pattern to his actions. He always targeted Alliance buildings or personnel; never civilians. They were brief but spectacular operations and the Blade was always highly visible, in the centre of the action. This appeared to be deliberate, like the leading man standing upstage of the lesser actors. There was also a profit motive: most of the Blade's crimes were lucrative, either in cash or valuable goods.
That much was obvious. Solid information about the man himself was rare, and often contradictory. That he was a man was certain; his voice had been heard on multiple occasions. He was variously described by different witnesses as strikingly tall, remarkably short, both fair and dark, with white, black and Hispanic skin. He rode a horse of every colour possible, appeared in a cloud of smoke and could walk through walls. Inara had spent many fruitless hours trying to sift fact from fancy. There was no indication where the Blade operated from; he had committed crimes all across Tiger's Eye. All that she could be sure of was that he was a real man, highly intelligent and a very talented criminal.
She brought up the list of the Blade's appearances on the computer and began to cycle through, thinking that perhaps there was a key case file she had overlooked. The files soon began to blur into one. It was late and the warm air was making her sleepy. She was in her private suite at Agua Fria, using the personal computer intended for browsing the Cortex or playing music. Don Andres thought that she was still recovering from heatstroke. She would not see him until breakfast, at the earliest.
She tried to concentrate on the case files, rubbing her palms into her eyes to try and stave off sleep. She sighed and lent back in her chair. Perhaps it was time to stop for the night? She made a note of the date of the next case file.
She paused, her finger poised to deactivate the screen. She frowned. Why was that date familiar? She drew up her own itinerary and placed it alongside the Scarlet Blade's case files. As a smuggling ship, Serenity kept no log, but the Companions' Guild required its members to keep records of all their engagements. The dates matched, almost exactly. Every time she had visited Tiger's Eye, the Scarlet Blade had appeared, almost within a day or two. The Blade's career stretched back further than her visits but Inara suspected that those dates would correspond with Serenity's visits too; the crew had been working jobs on Tiger's Eye for years.
Inara could feel the chill of suspicion trickling down into her stomach. Someone had been consciously, deliberately planning their crimes to coincide with Mal's time on that planet. He had not just been framed; he had been setup over a period of years. At first he had been offered petty jobs, not too many or he would become suspicious, but enough to make him a regular visitor to Tiger's Eye. Then, just over a year ago, he had acquired a registered Companion. Getting Serenity to visit was now simplicity itself for a wealthy man.
Inara realised that she was now standing up. What should she do? Call the law? She had no evidence, as yet. She had to be sure, or she would have to explain why she was investigating the Scarlet Blade in the first place, and that could bring the militia down on the rest of the crew. She had to be certain.
Activating the computer's communication software, Inara called up Simon's datapad. The computer chirped to itself for a few minutes. The screen filled with a grainy, jerking picture of Simon's face.
"Inara?" he said. He looked concerned.
"Simon, can you hear me?"
"Yes, go ahead."
"Is Mal there? Is he --?"
"He's fine. His ankle is a bit swollen but it's not serious. We've just arrived back at the hideout. Is something wrong?"
"Simon, I think I've found out who the Scarlet Blade is. I… I think it's Don Andres, my client!"
The picture blurred as the datapad changed hands. Now Mal's pale, sleepless face appeared on the screen.
"Inara, what's happening?"
"It's Don Andres, my client. I think he's the Blade; he's been setting you up to take the fall for his crimes. I compared the police records to my own. It fits! I –"
"My, aren't you clever?"
Inara spun round. Don Andres was standing in the doorway, holding a sword.
"Move away from the computer," he ordered, levelling the point at her.
Inara stood up and moved slowly back from the computer. Don Andres advanced into the room, keeping his sword raised. There was none of the dandy in him now; no languidness in his movements or expression.
"Captain Reynolds?" he said turning to the computer screen. His sword's point did not stray from Inara's throat.
"Who the hell are you?" Mal asked. Don Andres grinned. He seemed to be enjoying himself.
"Do you know, this is the first time that I've seen your face?" he said, "Curious, isn't it?"
"If you hurt her –"
"Please! You must know how this works! She's my hostage. You're going to come to Agua Fria, unarmed and alone. If you don't, then I will hurt her. You have until dawn, captain."
Don Andres reached over and turned off the computer.
"Tah mah duh hwoon dahn," Inara snarled.
"M'dear, please, there's no need to be vulgar," Don Andres said, smiling, "Especially when I wish to thank you. Your friends' heroics very nearly derailed my plan. You have just helped me put it back on course."
The mansion gates were open when Mal arrived, an hour before sunup. The sky was a pale purple, draped with dark tattered clouds. He left the 'mule' at the foot of the driveway and approached on foot. His ankle, though still sore, had all but recovered from his fall from the gallows. There were no lights in the mansion's many windows. No faces looked down on Mal as he climbed the smooth, chalk path. It appeared deserted.
One of the front doors had been left ajar. Mal slipped through. It was warm in the spacious entrance hall. Portraits of long dead de la Vega's gazed down at him from the walls. A chandelier, unlit, hung overhead. Ahead, opposite the doors, a stone staircase curved up to the second floor. Don Andres stood at its head, resting casually on the balustrade.
"Promptly done, captain," he called down, "You are unarmed?"
Mal pulled back the edges of his coat to show that he was not wearing a pistol.
"Where's Inara?" he asked.
"This way, if you please," said Don Andres, turning away.
Mal followed, cautiously. At the top of the stairs was a wide, richly decorated corridor. The lamps had all been deactivated, making it very dark. The only light came from an open door ahead. Mal approached, hugging the far wall. As he drew level with the open door he could see that on the far side lay a long gallery. Don Andres was standing by a table, a little way back from the door. He motioned for Mal to come inside.
The gallery was even longer than it had appeared from the corridor. It appeared to run the length of the mansion. It was a plain room, especially when compared with the ostentation of the entrance hall: a bare wooden floor, white walls and lined with only a handful of tasteful decorations.
"Wine?" said Don Andres, offering Mal a glass. A decanter and a spare glass stood on the table beside him, along with two naked short swords.
"Where's Inara?" Mal repeated, ignoring the glass.
"She's quite safe, I can assure you," said Don Andres. He looked young and athletic, which was exactly what Mal did not feel.
"I congratulate you on your escapade at the prison," Don Andres continued, "Pasquale must have been furious! I couldn't have done it better myself."
"I'll be sure to tell my crew," said Mal.
"I'm afraid you won't get the chance. I've already alerted the good captain. He will be here within the hour, and I doubt he'll trouble himself with the niceties of a court martial before he kills you."
"You called the law? Aren't you worried that they'll search your house; find you out?" Mal asked, playing for time as he tried to think of some way to disable Don Andres. The only weapons in sight were the two short swords. He was still six paces from the table; there was no way he could reach the swords before Don Andres.
"Why would they search it? Even if you were tell them everything you know, which is little enough, who are they going to believe? The wanted criminal or the respected gentleman, whose lineage stretches back to Earth-that-was? Not that you're going to be able to tell the good captain anything by the time he arrives."
"You're gonna kill me?"
"Exactly," said Don Andres, grinning like a schoolboy proposing a particularly daring prank, "The escaped criminal breaks into the helpless civilian's home to meet his accomplice, the high-class whore. The civilian, discovering a hitherto untapped reserve of strength, springs into action, slays the criminal and saves the day. The militia arrive to discover the criminal's body. Your doxy gets a rope around her neck and I get the acclaim. Ha! That'll give those hack writers something to put into their two-bit stories!"
"So this is all a set-up? You're gonna frame me as your own secret identity."
"Right. You see, I'm tired of adventures. Oh, it was all good fun in the early days: the peasants loved me, and I had fun snubbing my nose at that idiot Quintero. But now I've stolen enough to retire to the Core. Here's to growing old disgracefully, in decadence and debauchery!" Don Andres cried, raising his wine glass in a toast.
"So I looked for a way to get out; tie up all the loose ends before I left," he continued, "You were the perfect patsy: ex-Independent, small-time crook with a huge problem with authority. You'd be amazed how easy it is to frame a man. All you need is a bit of ingenuity and a whole lot of money."
"Then what's with the swords? Why not just shoot me while I was walking up the drive?" Mal asked, suspecting that he already knew the answer.
"Because I'm a sporting man, captain," said Don Andres, grinning, "I couldn't deny you a fighting chance."
"You son – What is all this to you; one big game?!" Mal cried.
"Of course it is," Don Andres replied. Mal was horrified. How many people had died because for this young man's amusement, he wondered? This spoilt, arrogant young man saw nothing wrong with using other people as pieces in his deadly little games.
"Come, captain, let's be at it," said Don Andres, picking up one of the swords and walking a little way down the gallery. Mal stalked forward and snatched up the other sword.
"You will find it helpful to remove your coat," said Don Andres. Mal scowled but slipped off his faded brown army coat all the same. Don Andres, who was wearing tight white breeches and a loose shirt, was busy making experimental lunges to stretch his legs. Mal made a half-hearted cut at the air and tried to recall something, anything that Inara had taught him about swordplay the night before his duel with Atherton Wing, almost a year ago. Always swing from the shoulder: that was right, wasn't it?
"En garde, Captain Reynolds," said Don Andres, sliding gracefully into the classic fencer's stance: side-on, knees bent, back foot at a right angle to the front, sword arm extended, free arm held out behind for balance. Mal did not even attempt to copy him and simply held the sword out in front of him. He reckoned that if he could make Don Andres swing and miss, he could grapple with him and disarm him. Mal was the taller and heavier built of the pair, and would probably have the advantage in a brawl.
Don Andres stepped forward, sliding silently across the wooden floor. Mal raised his sword, ready to parry. Don Andres's sword point flickered, too fast for Mal to follow. In desperation he flailed at where he thought Don Andres's blade was. His sword cut the defenceless air. Don Andres lunged. He struck Mal on the top of the head with the flat of his sword.
"Captain Reynolds! Please, you must at least try," he said, as if addressing an obstinate child.
"Chur ni-duh!" Mal growled, raising his sword again. Don Andres stepped back and came en garde again.
Mal turned at the sound of running feet. Inara rushed through the door and into the gallery, coming to a halt beside him. Mal was not sure what surprised him most: her sudden appearance, that she was holding a sword of her own or that she was wearing nothing but a gauzy shift that left very little to the imagination. Don Andres recovered his voice before Mal did:
"Y-you! How did you escape?!"
"Rope tricks are one of the first things a Companion learns at the Academy," said Inara coolly, "You of all people should know that, Andres."
"Wh – you… you do that?" Mal squeaked.
"Mal, please, this really isn't the time," Inara replied, rolling her eyes.
"Out of my way," Don Andres ordered, turning his sword on Inara, "Don't think I won't hurt you."
"You can try," said Inara, smiling.
"Have it your way," replied Don Andres, grinning. This was just part of the game to him.
He stepped forward, a contemptuous smirk on his lips. His point flickered left, right and then forward. Inara's blade twirled. There was a complex whirl of blades that Mal could not follow, then Don Andres stepped back, clutching his sword arm with his free hand. When he drew it back, the palm was red with blood.
"Jien huo!" he shouted. Inara's smile was cold and savage. Don Andres came back en garde and lunged at her in a single, fluid movement. Mal leapt aside with a yell as Inara's parry and riposte sent her sword point whistling past his ear. He retreated to the side of the gallery, watching in awed fascination as Don Andres and Inara set to.
Mal had been in more brawls than he could remember and he had seen a few stage fights at the theatre. This resembled neither. On the stage, the actors cut at one another with their swords, slapping the blades together to make an impressive sound. Don Andres and Inara attacked with the point, lunging and thrusting at one another, catching their opponent's blade on their guard or batting it aside with their own. It was all too fast and intricate for Mal to follow. Their arms hardly moved: all the movement was in the wrists and the fingers. He did not so much see the fight as hear it.
Clack – clack – clack clack clack
Don Andres caught Inara's point in the angle between his guard and his blade. He moved his arm in a circle, attempting to push Inara's point away and leave her defenceless.
Clack – Swish
Inara stepped back, disengaged her blade and lunged at Don Andres' vulnerable sword arm. His arm came back. Another furious exchange of parry and riposte followed.
Clack clack clack – clack – clack clack – clack – clack clack – clack clack
Mal stared, equally fascinated by the speed of the fight and the sight of Inara's long, shapely legs dancing back and forth along the gallery. He shook himself out of the stupor and looked around for someway that he could help. His eye fell on a Chinese vase standing on a pedestal. Mal snatched it up and bowled it over arm, aiming for Don Andres's head. The vase fell short, passing between Don Andres and Inara to shatter against the far wall.
"Stay out of this!" they both cried, rounding on Mal, before instantly resuming their fight.
Mal could not follow their technical swordplay but it was not difficult to read Don Andres's expression. He was livid with Inara, both for interrupting him and for proving such a strong opponent. One of his toys had rebelled and was refusing to play his game. His face, red and glistening with sweat, contorted into a snarl. He hammered at Inara's sword, using his greater size and muscle to overpower her. Inara fell back, feet gliding backwards along the gallery while her sword continued to flash between parry and riposte.
Clack clack clack – clack clack – clack – clack clack clack clack
Mal followed, the breath caught in his throat, as Don Andres forced Inara back, out of the door and into the corridor beyond. They were both tiring now. Their movements were less precise; their attacks and parries were becoming wilder and more desperate.
They fought along the corridor to the head of the stairs. Here Don Andres shifted his position, manoeuvring himself so that Inara's only escape route was down the staircase. She took it, going backwards, still fencing. The stairs were too narrow for Mal to follow. He was forced to stand at the balustrade and watch as she and Don Andres descended.
Clack clack – clack clack clack – clack clack – clack
At about the halfway step, Inara missed her footing. Her sword was bound up with Don Andres's. She teetered, free arm waving frantically. Don Andres, the finer points of fencing forgotten, put his shoulder down and shoved. Inara spun over, hit the stair below hard and rolled to the ground. Don Andres followed, panting heavily. Inara's sword lay abandoned on the staircase.
Mal took in the situation at a glance. There was no way he would reach the bottom of the staircase before Don Andres. Only one course of action was left to him. Taking a few steps back, he ran across the landing and launched himself over the balustrade. His grasping hands caught the frame of the chandelier. The antique fixture swung forward. Mal was just about to let go when the chandelier's age, and the simple fact that it had not been designed to bear the weight of a fully grown man, betrayed him. The chain suspending it from the ceiling snapped with a 'plink' and both Mal and the chandelier plummeted to the ground in a shower of plaster.
Don Andres stopped and stared, baffled. This was all the time Inara needed. She sprang up, ignoring the pain in her side where she had fallen, and planted a firm kick in Don Andres's crotch. Don Andres moaned and doubled up. His grip loosened on his sword. Inara's arm shot out, snatched it from his unresisting hand and turned it round. The narrow blade slid smoothly into Don Andres thigh. He screeched and collapsed onto the stairs, clutching his leg.
"Mal! Mal?" Inara cried, hurrying over the mound of twisted wood and metal that had once been a chandelier. Mal was eventually able to extricate himself, with a great deal of coughing and swearing. He was white from plaster dust and quite badly bruised, but not seriously hurt.
"What have I… told you… about… trying to defend me?" Inara asked breathlessly. Mal laughed. He looked down at her. Her hair was tangled and unwashed. She was wearing no makeup and was bathed in sweat, which was making her shift cling to her in a very distracting way. He had never seen her so beautiful. He stepped toward her, hands reaching for her.
"Hands up! Nobody move!"
Mal and Inara turned. Grey-coated militiamen were pouring through the open front doors. Captain Pasquale was at their head, a drawn sabre in his hand.
"Captain Reynolds, you are hereby bound by – What has happened here?!"
Don Andres tried to speak but could only moan.
"Captain Pasquale," said Inara, addressing him in a most dignified manner, "Don Andres de la Vega is the true identity of the Scarlet Blade and has framed Captain Reynolds for his crimes. He has confessed to the crime in my presence. If you search his mansion, I believe you will find all the evidence you should need."
Captain Pasquale opened his mouth as if to say something, then deflated in the face of Inara's commanding stare.
"Arrest that man, and get him to a surgeon," he snapped, pointing to Don Andres, "Captain Reynolds, you will remain here. You are still under suspicion –"
"I'm going back to my ship," said Mal wearily, "If you want me, I'll be there. It's not like I'm going anywhere: you've still got it landlocked."
Captain Pasquale bridled but Inara silenced him without another stare.
"Come on, hero," she said, giving Mal her shoulder, "Time we got you home."
"Shiny," said Mal, as they staggered towards the front doors.
Author's note: I could not end this story without acknowledging my debt to the film The Mark of Zorro (1940). Fans will not doubt have recognised the characters Don de la Vega (whose descendent Andres is, sadly, far less heroic), Governor Quintero, Captain Pasquale and Fray Felipe.