BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - MYSTERY

STEAMER

The Guns of Yamenmiao (Pt. 1)
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, part 1. The job search on Roma has surprising results, but for Mal, the surprise is less than pleasant.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2855    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Prologue

Thanks again to PhyreLight for the beta. Cursor hovering over the Chinese phrases will give you the translation.

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Mal's order to lay low lacked specifics, but Simon's mind was set furthest at ease to stay with the ship, even though he had barely stepped off of it since Ariel. In his devoted protection of his sister he was beginning to feel liable to join in her insanity just from being stuck vesselside for so long. However, it wasn’t until she decided to curl up on the deck in the middle of the forward hall and take a nap that Simon felt an iota of safety in going outside for some fresh air: a little distance between him and the ghastly clamour of that needle scaler was just as welcome.

Already Wash and Zoe were carrying out Mal's orders, however leisurely. They were, in fact, taking advantage of it – disguising some husband-and-wife time by searching out a quiet heel-cooler of a retreat, staying within view of Serenity just in case their presence was urgently called for.

"You know what's funny?" Wash said, surveying the west side of the bustling main street.

"That silly little dinosaur routine you like to do when you think nobody's lookin'?" Zoe offered.

Wash had the grin of a man who had just won big at a racetrack as he turned to face her. "Dinosaurs, me?" he exclaimed, clearly mocking incredulity. "Noooooo! When have I ever had such time to fritter away with Mal scowling over my shoulder? Anyway, that's not the kind of funny I was referring on."

Only Wash would have the presence of mind to laugh his way out of such a predicament, Zoe thought fondly to herself. Expectantly, she turned her head, piercing Wash's gaze with her own while she awaited the impact of the other shoe.

His answer was preceded by a nod past Zoe, aimed toward a tall-standing spacecraft graving dock a few blocks distant. "I just wonder where these folks get off building ships without any Alliance henpeckery," he went on. "I mean, it being an Independent planet and all, you'd think the Feds wouldn't give them a moment's peace commandeering every keel that's laid around here."

"Does have an oddness to it," Zoe acknowledged. "Mal and I used to know a couple of folk from hereabouts. Might say they're just old-fashioned, but it sure is their little secret why the Alliance tends to keep its nose out of here."

"Chances are we'll be staying long enough to find out." Wash's tone wasn't quite as doleful as it was impassive.

"Well, what was that you were sayin' about a vacation?" Zoe said warmly. To Wash's thinking, the sweetness of her smile almost outclassed the feeling of her arm sliding around his waist - but not quite.

Though not far from Serenity, they were close to a mile distant by now from their compatriots: walking leisurely north, Mal, Jayne and Book were on the sharp lookout for the mystical land of Ventura Plaza and wherever their employer – whether their own client or Inara's – might be found. Jayne was by now fairly brimming over with sarcastic remarks about Book's occupation in this bustling melting pot of a spaceport, but with them came the frustrating knowledge that Mal would do some mighty unpleasant things to his mouth if he spoke up. In point of fact, Mal was ready for this above all else and as such, he could scarcely blame Inara for stepping out ahead of them. Being seen alongside the likes of him and Jayne, and possibly even Book, could render her Companionship considerably less desirable for some.

"Somebody mind lettin' me in on something?" Jayne spoke up at last.

"Been made abundantly clear you ain't to go breakin' no kneecaps to take no one's money," Mal said firmly.

"Hun-dan," Jayne mumbled, inaudible. Aloud he went on, "Didn't say nothin' to that effect. All's I'm wonderin' is why this here's like to be the only spaceport on this whole hill o' beans."

"Ours is not to reason why," Book said calmly. "Ours is to refuel and fly."

"What, is poetry some kinda pre-placement gig for shepherd school?" Jayne scoffed.

"I think you might find that St. Paul was a master of the written word. As for the rest of us, well, we make do with what God gives us, which tends to be more than we know."

"Well, if God would be decent enough to give us a pocketful of cash and a little wind in our sails, I'll die a happy man," Mal said, drier in his sarcasm than sun-beaten rawhide.

"Just try not to be too quick about it," Book said with a thin smile. "Happy or unhappy, I think we'll all do well to have as little as possible to answer for when our time comes."

Mal's gaze, now wandering to the east side of the street, lit on just what he was looking for. "Well, Shepherd, if you're lookin' to spread the word to those that need it, I'd say your Point A's yonder," he said frankly, jerking his head at the casino hotel across the street.

To Book's dismay, the edifice was gigantic: towering over the rest of the block at fifteen stories, it relied on far more than just its size to draw attention. The words VENTURA PLAZA glared across the city skyline at the top of the casino hotel, surrounded by multicoloured, flashing neon lights. Over half the east wall of the structure was covered with a plasma screen advertising upcoming performance events and promotional specials for prospective gamblers - it probably made this block as bright as day in the middle of the night. The main entrance was easily as wide as that of a spacedock terminal, with an according number of doors, and a broad neon marquee sign spanning the awning above it. This area was fairly teeming with crowds from almost all walks of life, all age groups, and all social statures: the walking moneybags were almost as numerous as the down-on-their-luck hopefuls hedging about the entry way.

"Now this is what I call the mother lode!" Jayne grinned. He clapped Mal on the shoulder, took another chomp on his cigar, and set off at a brisk stride toward the flashy entrance.

"Jayne!" Mal yelled after him. "Job! Remember, job? I got no notion to - " He broke off upon the recognition that Jayne wouldn't pay attention to him if someone had walked up and stuffed a bulging bag of platinum into his belt. Tossing up his hands in exasperation, Mal shifted focus. "Preacher, you wanna help me out here?" he said, his tongue sharpened to a sword's edge as he set foot after Jayne.

Book was quick to follow. "Not that I haven't tried, but I'd say it's Jayne who needs the help," he said matter-of-factly.

"Best we see to it afore he starts helpin' himself," Mal growled. As it was, Jayne had already vanished into the bustling crowd in the entry way - not for want of build, but he could dart off in any direction by the time Mal gained entrance. There was no pleasure in his eye, no hopeful gleam: just determination. His reasons for setting foot in that casino were purely atypical, and he could only hope that he could make Jayne see those reasons, if he ever found him. Having checked his weapon at the door, he edged his way forcefully through the bustling mass of humanity until at last it spread out into what looked to be at least a 100,000-square-foot expanse.

"Not exactly my definition of a quality establishment," Book mused, looking around at the plush decor.

"It ain't no monastery, and that's a fact," Mal said. "C'mon, I got a feeling I know where to find that nao dai rou de."

In spite of Mal's instinct, Book wasn't entirely convinced: the casino's populace was stacked six deep, and Jayne was by no means the only muscle tower present. Notwithstanding, Mal's instinct bore out when he located the casino's lounge adjoining the card tables, which currently smouldered under heavy cigar smoke and Jayne's watchful eye alike. The big mercenary was leaning against the nearby bar, ogling the poker tables and ostensibly waiting for his chance to slip in on a game - no matter what sort of luck he'd had with them in the past. But then if he didn't quit eyeing passing bar girls, Mal reflected, his chances of even joining a game were likely to go up in the same smoke that gathered densely near the ceiling.

"Jayne!" The abrupt ring of Mal's voice visibly startled him: he jolted upright from his leaning position, his expression akin to the last time Kaylee caught him in the cookie jar. "Just what in the tian xiao de gave you license to come chargin' in here like hell's roadrunner?" Mal demanded.

Jayne shrugged offhandedly. "Voices in my head?" he offered.

"Glad to hear there's somethin' in your head," Mal glowered. "Now why don't you tell it you've got better things to do, like help us track Ray down." Thereupon he turned on his heel and set off along the clearest visible path through the card tables.

"Aw, c'mon, Mal," Jayne complained, hastening to catch up with him. "You just ain't brimmin' over with joy unless you're spoilin' somebody's fun, are ya?"

"Oh, believe me, there are plenty worse places to find one's happiness," Book interjected.

"Don't bother draggin' us off to 'em," Jayne grumbled. "Mal, does the phrase 'all work and no play' mean anything to you?"

"Not really," Mal shot back. "How about the phrase 'seven percent's standard'?"

For a moment Jayne was caught unawares: but then it dawned on him that he hadn't heard that phrase since Mal first hired him. Now all too understanding of the captain's implication, he made his concession with little more than a dissatisfied grunt.

The smoke hung heavily in the air as they passed the poker tables and the pool hall: yet Mal paid it no mind, more than a bit gratified that Book was bringing up the rear and thus in a position to stay Jayne's course. He was taken with a passing curiosity that the pool tables sported actual composite balls rather than holographic ones, a welcome if time-constrained change from the unreliable electronic pool tables of his experience. As he passed into clear air again, with the rest of the card tables off to his left, his eye was unexpectedly drawn. A crowd had gathered around one of the central card tables, and between the warm bodies surrounding that table he could see some familiar red drapery. Curiosity again piqued, if not for such a passing fancy of a moment, Mal approached the rear of the crowd and slipped into the clearest spot he could find, checking to make sure that Jayne and Book were still on his heels. Then he gave the table's occupants his undivided attention.

"Huh," was all he could think of to say.

Inara was directing one of the most alluring looks he'd ever seen at a man she had engaged in a game of baccarat. The man's style was nothing if not fastidious: mid-height, thick-bodied, he had a thick thatch of black hair and dark brown eyes that tended to squint when he smiled, an expression to which he seemed quite predisposed with Inara across the table. The look on his face and the crowd around the table were drawn like water from a well: Inara was unmistakably a Companion no matter where she went. It wasn't hard to figure out where this game would lead, whatever its outcome, but Mal was too busy wondering just what kind of work this character might have for him if Inara had been truthful about it. Something about him, whether it was his fancy dress or his well-trimmed appearance, reeked of ill-gotten gains, somewhere slightly below Niska's level but well above Badger's. At least, Mal reflected, he could be sure of where to come if he couldn't raise the person he was looking for.

The man pulled a card out of the shoe and placed it facedown on the card that already lay before Inara: then he drew another card for himself. Obviously the bet had already been placed. Inara smiled warmly: she flicked her eyes downward for only a second to flip her cards face up. The seven of clubs and seven of hearts - a fitting combination, Mal couldn't help thinking - gleamed beneath the light that overhung the table, bringing Inara's total card value to four. Her opponent's hand revealed a total of eight: victory was his.

"Well, don't say I didn't warn you that this was my game," he grinned.

"By no means is it the only game I'm accustomed to playing," Inara said huskily. "As they say, it rarely matters whether you win or lose." And with that it was clear that this game was far from finished. Laying their cards aside, the pair proceeded to draw another hand.

"Tryin' to learn some tricks of the trade?" Jayne muttered.

"Bi zui," Mal muttered back. Scowling, Jayne retreated and turned instead to observing Inara's opponent. It struck him that he'd never seen a pair make such eyes at each other, not even in the pleasurable company he'd enjoyed on Higgins Moon.

Book was no less enraptured. "Our first night out from Persephone, she asked if I'd like to lecture her on the wickedness of her ways," he remarked. "Seems not a day goes by when I don't want to take her up on it."

"Oh, hell, I'll take her up on it later," Mal grunted.

The next deal ended in a tie, but neither player was deterred. The sultry, inviting expression on Inara's face had not changed as she waited for the dark-haired man to deal. He was warming up to her and no mistake: she must be the first individual in a while, let alone the first woman, to give him a run for his money at a game in which his expertise was marked. The back of Mal's mind crossed paths with an odd thought about what other fathomless secrets could be festering amongst his people. There was River's story, which she seemed likely to take to her grave; Jayne's hero worshippers back in Canton; Book's strangely intimate working knowledge of the Alliance military, his status as a Shepherd notwithstanding; and now Inara, a somewhat reclusive Companion with an affinity for gambling. What could be next, Wash revealing himself to be a master swordsman?

Entertaining himself with thoughts like these, Mal watched intently as Inara turned her cards. Her adversary never even got the chance: she held the five of diamonds and the four of clubs, an instant win. Some excited buzzing dashed through the growing crowd around the table, belying some people deucedly impressed that Inara had come out on top.

"Mind telling me what other games you're accustomed to playing?" the man asked.

"Perhaps I'll show you later," Inara said. "Let's just say they involve a great deal of eye contact and resourcefulness." Her smile increased in temperature as she drew the cards from the shoe, working step by step up to the three-card rule. Breaths were held and lips were bitten as her opponent revealed his third card - the dreaded ten, holding his total at five. The win for Inara was thus almost assured: her three of spades evened her total out at eight. Another rush of excitement through the crowd, and another narrow-eyed smile from the man across the table.

"Well, now," he said amicably. "Looks as though you and baccarat certainly are old companions."

"Yes, that would be an appropriate way to put it," Inara said with a knowing gleam in her eye.

Hands folded on the tabletop, the dark-eyed man leaned forward, meeting her gaze. "So, what do you say to a different game?"

"There's nothing I'd like better," Inara smiled. Together they rose: accepting the proffered hand of her new friend, Inara trailed him along a narrowed path through the crowd around the table. Mal didn't miss the esoteric smile she shot in his direction – she didn't look at all surprised to see that he had taken her offer into consideration, even if he wasn't quite ready to take her up on it. As it was, he couldn't help looking positively bewildered in response.

"Friend of yours?"

In fact, so flabbergasted was he that the voice took him completely by surprise: he hadn't heard it in years.

Nor had he seen the face from which it issued – even though that face had apparently been standing right next to him for the entire game. Turning toward him with eyebrows raised, the face, an olive-hued face with half-lidded hazel-brown eyes, a prominent nose and a crew-cut head of greying hair above it, showed him curiosity and then a broad, genial grin.

"Ray!" Mal blurted. His own face nearly split in half as he boisterously shook hands and embraced the newcomer.

"Well, well, look what a new eye we got for a fancible run-in!" the stranger exclaimed.

"Ain't it just!" Mal broke the embrace, caring little that they had drawn most of the attention sundered by Inara and her friend's departure.

"So what dropped you outta the wild black yonder?"

"Oh, a little of this, a little of that," Mal said loftily. "Like you to meet a couple o' my newest. Jayne, Shepherd Book, this'd be Raymond Corsetto, the last sumbitch I ever called 'Captain'."

"How do you do," Book said pleasantly, accepting Corsetto's handshake. Jayne simply responded with a brief nod and a "Howdy."

"You figure on tellin' me later why you got a preacher in tow all of a sudden?" Corsetto said to Mal with a wry grin.

"Yeah, it's the kinda tale the Feds'll be sure to write outta history," Mal said. "But I got another story needs tellin'. You care to tell me how business is, I gotta do some ma shang."

With a single nod of understanding, Corsetto looked over his shoulder, briefly surveying the casino as if to make sure that Inara and her friend were well out of sight. As it turned out, that was precisely his motivation – all geniality was gone under the dead seriousness that had written the legend of his survival.

"All right, well, we better find a quieter place to hear it," he muttered. "That bag o' slime just walked outta here with the Companion? He runs this place with gold knuckles, instead of brass ones. He's probably got some of his eyes on me already."

"That a fact," Mal said tonelessly. His eyes drifted away from Corsetto, past him, toward the point where he'd last seen Inara and her new friend disappear into the crowd. He suddenly found himself hoping to hell that Inara had not let the man in on her lease agreement.

"It is." Corsetto studied him. Mal had a legend of his own – a legend for being concerned on those in his charge, whoever they were and whatever the conditions, a strong part of the deadly loyalty he drew from them. The same burning disquiet was readable in his stare now, as was its direction.

"Sure you don't know that girl?" Corsetto pried.

Mal had long ago learned better than to lie to him. "She's been ridin' my boat now goin' on a year."

"Well, if you ain't got a way to warn her, you better find one," Corsetto said ominously. "She'll be luckier than both of us together if that smarmy bastard ever lets her out of his sight."

Continue to Part 2....

COMMENTS

Tuesday, April 22, 2008 2:46 AM

JANE0904


Nice set-up, great dialogue - snarky Mal is always fun - and now a cliffhangar to boot. Good stuff!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008 5:50 AM

ANGELLEMARCS


I'm ready for more.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008 1:57 PM

YINYANG


"'You know what's funny?' Wash said, surveying the west side of the bustling main street.

"'That silly little dinosaur routine you like to do when you think nobody's lookin'?' Zoe offered."

That right there is golden. And, the rest is very good, too, of course. :D

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 6:49 PM

PLATONIST


getting caught up, Steamer

characters are spot on, a solid plot that works well in this time frame, nice job overall

and Inara as the confident gamer, very her to be able to work that table

Monday, May 19, 2008 4:11 AM

2X2


Ooh, definately intrigued now :oD

Loved watching Inara play the table!

Your dialogue is quick and snappy and feels very much like the show. Great stuff!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 1:49 AM

AMDOBELL


Uh oh, looks like Inara may have bitten off more than she can chew if what Ray tells Mal is right. And if he really owns the casino and has eyes everywhere it might be hard to find any way to get a warning to her. Complications. Isn't it always the way of things, and funny that it is Inara this time that seems to have walked into one with her eyes open not Mal. Very shiny! Ali D :~)
You can't take the sky from me


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The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 12. Tensions mount on the Yamenmiao expedition, coming to a head when Mal enters exactly the dire strait he feared the worst.

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The Old That Is Strong - Book 1, Part 11. The crew finds that their venture to recover the train is not without its unspoken fear of grievous injuries or death - but River finds herself concerned by something altogether different.

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