Marguerite and John stood side by side and regarded the building before them in puzzlement. Neither was particularly worried. Years of living on the Plateau had made them accustomed to shifting planes of reality. Or as accustomed as one could become to such fluxes of space and time. At least this place looked to be free of the usual threats of dinosaurs, ape men, and cannibal tribes. In fact, it looked positively civilized.
"The Thousand Faces Tea Room and Lapidarists Society," mused Marguerite, reading the sign.
John look at her in bemusement. "It says Thousand Faces Pub and Buddhist Monastery," he said. "That doesn't even make sense."
"It would if it were a Trappist monastery."
"It isn't. Or that isn't what it says."
"So we're seeing different things. I wonder what Challenger would make of that."
The door of the strange establishment opened and a woman with olive skin, dark hair, and eyes that looked as though they had stared into the heart of the universe stepped out. She wore classic Greek clothing and her expression was formal but not cold. She descended the steps in silence and stopped to stand about a yard away in front of them. She reached into her white gown and pulled out a small metallic brooch. She handed it to John and indicated he should pin it to his shirt. With a frown of bemusement, he did.
At last, the woman spoke. "My apologies. The technology is a bit ahead of your time, but it is the most convenient in the circumstances."
"Quite all right," John said, not really understanding what she meant, but not wishing to be rude.
The woman was speaking Greek. Ancient Greek, if Marguerite was any judge. Which she was. And yet John had understood her. It must be something to do with the brooch, she thought. Now I really wonder what Challenger would make of this place.
The woman spoke again, this time to Marguerite. "I am correct that you will not need one?"
"It seems not," answered Marguerite.
"Excellent." The woman smiled broadly at them both. "Well met, heroes. I am Antigone, and it is my happy responsibility to welcome you to the Thousand Faces."
Marguerite looked at the woman seated at the small, round table. She was dressed in an elaborately embroidered Chinese silk robe and her dark hair fell in loose waves over her shoulders. Her skin was fair and her eyes were dark and wide. Her lips were perfect red. The woman smiled and Marguerite felt an unexpected sensation of genuine welcome.
"Please sit," the woman said. "Have tea with me." She poured two small stoneware cups full of steaming black tea.
Marguerite sat. She felt terribly underdressed for this elegant establishment in her jungle-stained skirt and jacket, and her last decent blouse. Despite Antigone's assurances and the unusual invitation ritual through which she'd put them, Marguerite had been concerned that she and John wouldn't be allowed in the door, as disheveled and travel-worn as they were. Once they were inside, however, her worries had soon faded. No one had challenged them or tried to turn them away. No one had so much as looked askance at them. Even their guns had garnered no reaction.
"Thank you," she said. She reached out and gingerly picked up the cup. It was hot, but not painfully so against her fingers, and she took a sip.
"I'm Inara." The woman still wore that open smile that made Marguerite feel at ease in a way she couldn't ever remember feeling before.
"Marguerite Krux," she replied.
"Welcome to the Thousand Faces, Miss Krux."
"Just Marguerite," she found herself saying. She went on, awkward and half-uncertain, and playing it off with feigned bravura, "I thought we already met the welcoming committee."
Inara chuckled sweetly. "You did. I simply recognized a kindred spirit and thought it would be nice to meet you." She glanced off to one side, to the highly polished bar where John stood. He was chatting with a man who was dressed similarly to John. The only notable difference in their styles, in fact, was the stranger's long, brown coat. That and his gun. While John wore his Webleys in crossed shoulder holsters, the other man wore his single holster low on his hip, like a gun-fighter from America's untamed west, but it was no type of gun Marguerite recognized. The men burst suddenly into laughter over some shared joke, and John waved to the nattily attired bartender to bring them a fresh round of beers.
"I see your friend and mine have also found kindred spirits," Inara said in a voice as sweet as ripe plums and as lush as velvet.
"You know that man?"
"Mm. As well as I can, and in the ways that I can. I know he's a smuggler and a rogue." It was said more with affection than accusation. Inara went on. "I know he's been a soldier in a righteous cause. And I know he's a man of honor. But there are aspects of Mal that I will never understand and can never share."
Marguerite heard a shadow of sadness in her tone, but sadness wrapped in content. Inara knew where she couldn't follow her friend, and she had made peace with that.
Marguerite envied her that peace.
"That sounds like John and me. Only it's the other way around with us. There are parts of my past that… Well, I wouldn't want him to have to share them. He deserves better than my history."
"You're a very caring person."
"Ha!" Marguerite shook her head. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to laugh at you. Just the idea that anyone would call me that. You don't know me," she added with some sadness of her own.
Inara's smile was kind. "I know enough. You're a hero or you wouldn't be here. Both you and John."
Something in Marguerite relaxed fractionally, lowering her usual defenses a trifle. Perhaps it was this place. Perhaps it was this woman. That didn't mean she was ready to play nice quite yet, however. "Does that mean you're one, too? A hero?" she asked, a hint of challenge in her voice. "I mean, you're here."
Now Inara's smile grew self-deprecating, but her rich brown eyes twinkled with mirth. "You wouldn't think it to look at me, would you? But I have been heroic in my own way."
Another burst of male laughter drew both women's eyes. A third man had joined the others. This fellow was tall. Taller than either John or Mal. His honey-blond hair fell to his shoulders and his eyes were such a clear sapphire blue that Marguerite could see their sparkle even from across the room. He was dressed like something out of Greek legend, all woven leather and heavy cloth. Mal greeted him with a slap on the shoulder and a shout for a third pint of beer.
"Hercules," Inara explained.
"The Hercules?" Marguerite asked doubtfully.
"I don't mean Hercule Poirot," Inara quipped. Marguerite only looked at her blankly. "Ah. Agatha Christie's a bit after your time, I think." She changed the subject back to the men at the bar. "They're getting along very well, it seems."
"Good. It's been a long time since John's had…a contemporary." She thought of Challenger and Ned, both good friends to John in their own ways, but not like John in the way that this Mal, and apparently the Greek Demigod Hercules, were like him.
Now there was a sight. Lord John Roxton kicking back a beer with a soldier-turned-smuggler and the son of Zeus.
And she thought life on the Plateau was crazy.
"They all value honor," said Inara. "And I suspect they've all had great friends."
"And all suffered great losses." Marguerite knew John's losses well, and didn't the legends say Hercules had lost his wife and children? She wondered what Mal's losses might have been.
Inara nodded, but said only, "Yes."
Marguerite took another sip of her tea. It was the perfect temperature, so she took another. "Have you been here very long?"
"Yes and no." Inara's brow furrowed delicately. "I think you're not staying. Not this time, at least. Am I right?"
Marguerite considered the question. "I don't really know. I don't think so. But I'd like to come back some day. If possible."
"I'm sure you will. For now, look around, relax, and enjoy what the Thousand Faces has to offer."
Marguerite thought then of Inara's earlier mention of kindred spirits. Could she be right? It seemed unlikely, but… She regarded the beautiful, gentle, elegant, and above all kind woman before her and shook her head.
"We're more alike than you give yourself credit for," Inara said as if she'd gleaned Marguerite's thoughts from the very air. "And I'm not so gentle and forgiving as all that." She leaned in conspiratorially. "Between you and me, I have one hell of a temper."
Marguerite let out a tiny snort of amusement. "Now there's something I know we have in common."
They chatted for quite some time over tea that never grew cold. Trading stories of past adventures, lost friends, old lovers.
Eventually, Marguerite sensed John's gaze on her and she turned to see him smiling at her. She smiled back and raised her little stoneware cup in a silent toast. He nodded once and lifted his pint glass in reply.
"It's about time to go, I think," Marguerite said with some regret.
Inara grew apologetic. "And I've monopolized your time completely."
"It's all right. I've enjoyed it. Very much."
"As have I. When you come back, look for me."
Marguerite smiled. She would be back; she could sense it. It had been a long time since she'd made a new friend, and she looked forward to seeing Inara again. "I will."