Sorry for the long delay. Went on a Doctor Who kick for a while, and I also have my actual novel writing career to manage. I appreciate your patience.
I know full well what religion and the law say about inversion. I stopped believing them the moment Sherlock Holmes kissed me; and the bliss that shot through me had such a tang of divinity in it I resolved I'd rather spend Hell with him than Heaven without.
The surprising part, though, was that I still maintained a healthy interest in women. I eventually came to terms with it as being the logical course. Do they not preach that the human body is but a form of clothing for the soul? And were one to love a person, would it not follow that one would love them no matter what clothes they wore? And is it not possible to find more than one costume eminently attractive?
I say all this so you will not be too confused when I confess that the Lady Sarah's entrance took my breath away. She looked very much like an Afghan woman, or perhaps one of the lighter-skinned Parsees I had encountered in South Asia, with black hair that fell to her waist and a red silken gown, a white pearl at her honey-colored throat. Her lips were coral and tender as a rosebud, her eyes a deep chocolate, her hands soft and refined.
Behind her came the Tam siblings, River in a yellow frock slightly too short and wide for her tall, thin frame, the doctor cleaned up from our earlier ordeal.
Lady Sarah pressed her hands together in an Asiatic greeting. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson."
Holmes returned the gesture. "We are honored to meet a High Priestess of the Cult of Radha."
Her smile did not fade. Rather, it stilled. "How did you…"
"There is a tattoo on the inside of your left wrist. I've always found it both fascinating and worthwhile to study secret societies, particularly ones related to the workings of the Empire."
"And here I was just thinking you were but a fancified whore," Captain Reynolds mused.
She glared at him. "Better than a petty thief."
"My work ain't always legal, but at least it's honest."
"Look at the adults flirt," River murmured. I suppressed a smile.
"Well, technically she's a spy and courtesan," Holmes said in tones that were meant to be soothing, if the words themselves weren't. "Radha, for those of you not familiar with Hindu mythology, was the lifetime love of the god Krishna, yet she never married him. The Cult of Radha teaches accomplished, high-caste women to be companions, mistresses, and assistants to the Rajas and men who serve them. Rather than being mere props in political alliances like their wives, they are genuinely educated in the workings of government and are meant to be intellectual equals of their patrons. Your presence on this ship would indicate your decision to freelance, providing emotional support and guidance to multiple men both English and Hindu, rather than stay with one princeling, yes? Or did he die?"
"That's a story for another time, if you haven't read it already in my every move," she said, gracefully seating herself, her face settling into a lovely but taciturn mask.
"I've been fascinated by your organization ever since I heard of them – it speaks of women having so much more potential than they are often allowed to exercise."
"Why are you named Sarah, then?" I asked.
"My name is Inara Serra. The crew calls me 'The Lady' as a little joke, since I seem so much more respectable than the rest of them, while your English morality would call me crueler names."
"Well, that's all very interestin', mate, but can we be gettin' back to the job now?" the man known as Jayne interrupted brusquely.
"Were you two briefed on the manner?" Captain Reynolds asked Dr. Tam.
"No, Captain." I noticed he was looking at Kaylee, dressed in workmen's clothes with grease smudged on her face, with a mixture of surprise and interest. She seemed more confident in this garb, as if it were more true to her real disposition, and if one looked past the impropriety (which one did constantly on the Serenity), than it made her even prettier than before.
"We've been hired to rescue the other students at the Academy you pulled your sister from. She wasn't the only highborn child taken, and some of the parents have been less neglectful than yours, willin' to pay plenty a dime to get 'em back. All we know is that it's on the coast somewhere. We'd be mighty grateful if you could show us how to get there and provide any other assistance, both bein' familiar with the territory and bein' a doctor, and in exchange you'll get a cut of the money once we succeed. You're also welcome to stay as part of the crew. Mighty lot of injuries happen on this boat, type of life we lead."
Tam nodded. "I'm much obliged. And it would be terribly negligent of me to not try to assist the other imprisoned children when I have the opportunity."
"Shall I get the map so we can chart our course, sir?" Zoe asked.
"If you'd be so kind. Wash, we'll need you to see how much coal we've got and whether it's enough to get us there once we know where 'there' is. Jayne, back to the boiler, it don't shovel itself. Book, you're makin' dinner tonight, but first get the doc – Tam, not the other one - to the infirmary and help him with anythin' else he might be needin', make everything shipshape afore one of us gets shot or stabbed again."
"A common occurrence, Captain?"
"You'd be surprised, even an old soldier like yourself, Dr. Watson."
"'Nara, if you'd go to your cabin and get out those letters from the Magistrate, I'll be consultin' with you about them in about an hour, since you're so good at the pretty wordin', get us out of that legal conundrum. Other than that do as you please. Kaylee, show these gentlemen their bunk – I'm afraid you'll have to share…"
"I think you'll be able to cope, am I right?" Wash asked with a wink. When I started he patted my hand. "Hey, what's a little sodomy compared to miscengenation? We're all degenerates here."
Zoe smiled and kissed him. "One man in a million." She then headed to find the necessary props for navigation. The other members of the crew took this as their signal to disperse.
River drew her knees to her chest and clutched at them. "Black woods and the white man's burden," she whispered. "Lest we forget."