Madness in a Silken Thread
limiculous

xii

what her training kept from her, part iv

companionship

xii

By the time she is twenty, Inara Serra is competent at every skill the companion's Academy has to offer. Competence, however, is apparently not enough to give her the title of full companion. At her quarterly assessment, the Matron of the House sits Inara down and tells her, blunt and unapologetic, that she will have to be far more than simply competent if she wants to join their esteemed ranks.

"After all," Matron concludes, watching Inara closely, "we cannot have every two-bit whore with a bit of class able to get a license."

Inara, fighting to hide her rage at the unsubtle insult, thanks the Matron coldly, stands, and leaves the room.

Nandi, her big sister in the House, is waiting outside, a tiny crease in her forehead the only sign of her worry. It's been nearly two months since Inara's seen her last, and her mere presence in enough to calm Inara down from her shaking rage. "Well," Nandi asks. "How did it go, mei-mei?"

"Terribly," says Inara, frustrated tears stinging at her eyes. "I don't think I'll be able to come back next quarter. I'm— I'm not good enough for this line of work."

"Nonsense," Nandi tells her as they fall into step. "You're far better than I was at twenty, and I started when I was six. You were twelve when you came to the House. Matron just wants to push you harder."

"She said I was no better than a two-bit whore," Inara mutters, glancing to the side. There's something off about Nandi right now, as if her mind is elsewhere.

"Nothing wrong with a two-bit whore," Nandi says, clearly trying for cheerfulness, but her voice falls flat.

"Easy for you to say." Inara heads in the direction of the dormitories, carefully disguising the movement of her lips with a fan as the two pass a small clump of younger girls wobbling along on okobo. "Your place is assured. They'll never remove you from the guild." She hazards a glance over at Nandi, wondering just what is wrong. Her mentor has her face angled away. "Nandi?"

"Maybe I don't want that!" Nandi bursts out, looking suddenly at Inara, eyes blazing.

"What?" Inara asks, shocked.

Nandi's face twists, ugly with frustration for just a moment, before she grabs Inara's arm and drags her the rest of the way to Inara's room.

Pushing Inara in, Nandi carefully shuts the door, leaning her forehead against it while she talks. "I… can't say that you've had it easier than me because you haven't, I know that, but, ta ma de!"

She turns from the door, and Inara sees that her fists are clenched tight against her stomach, her eyes shuttering from side to side in agitation.

"My whole life has been planned for me," she says, finally looking at Inara. "For as long as I can remember, I've known that I would come here, train to be a companion, and make vast amounts of money to spend on pretty clothes and jewels and luxury trips… and I know that that is the dream life for so many people, but I've always wanted to go see everything the 'verse has to offer and-" Nandi swears viciously, nostrils flaring. "I want to make my own way! I can't do that as a companion. You chose this life. I never did, and I don't want it."

Inara stares at her closest friend, feeling an odd roaring in her ears. "I -" she begins, voice unacceptably weak. She clears her throat and tried again. "Will you be leaving the guild soon, then?" Will you be leaving me, she wants to ask.

Nandi knows Inara far too well, and she softens, reaching forward to pull Inara into a tight embrace. "Not yet," she whispers. "And certainly not before we get you certified." She draws back, her earlier frustration and anger once more hidden behind a serene mask. "I'm here to make sure that happens."

Inara hears all of this as if from a distance. She knows that Nandi will work with her night and day to ensure that Inara gets licensed, but it won't just be for Inara's benefit. Nandi wants free, and Inara is the only thing holding her back. It's only a matter of time before she loses her mentor, before she is alone once more. But Nandi's happiness is far more important than her desire to keep a friend close, and Inara understands precisely how choking a gilded cage is. Inara will become a companion. She'll send Nandi out into the black with a smile and a wave. She'll make sure that she doesn't hold Nandi back from her dreams. And she'll never chain someone again, even if that means holding herself aloof for the rest of her life.

xii