Continued from 2. Confrontation in the Spaceport.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
Kolteo spent the rest of that long afternoon in his office in closed conference with Marrem and Romik going once more over all the reports and sightings of Julin over the past ten years. Julin had been a busy man, traveling far and wide across the Periphery, but Imperial regulations were laxly and inconsistently enforced in the outer reaches of the spiral arms. They had a rough timeline of Julin’s travels, albeit with many gaps.
But it was enough. Kolteo stood stock still, staring down at the data before him. The longer he studied it, the more sure he was. A chill passed over him, and he shivered.
“He knows,” he said.
Marrem and Romik looked up.
“He knows?” asked Romik. “What does he know?”
Kolteo and Marrem exchanged glances.
Kolteo pointed. “See? He’s been to Marljarann, Schlhanokh, and Tomanaley. Several times each. They’re all within a few days’ journey of Napra.”
Marrem nodded. “He knows. He must know, sir.”
Romik sighed impatiently. “Knows what?”
Kolteo bit his lip. He trusted Romik with many things, not least of all his own person, and the man had demonstrated his loyalty over and over again. There was no reason to keep the secret from him.
“He knows the location of the Lost Fleet.”
Romik furrowed his brow. “But nobody knows the location of the Lost Fleet. It’s *lost.*”
Kolteo shook his head. “Not all is as it seems.”
Romik looked hard at Kolteo. “Deceptions and cat’s paws, sir?”
Kolteo sighed and nodded. “Yes, and convoluted schemes. The Emperor, you must understand, he was mad. Crazed with power. He wanted complete, utter control. No one was safe. No world was safe.”
Romik looked at him, wide-eyed. “And you…?”
Kolteo nodded. “I know where the Lost Fleet is lost. I hatched the plot that lost it.”
Two hours later, Kolteo dismissed Marrem and Romik and took his personal sky-car home in a foul mood. The conversation with Romik had been difficult. Then they had received word from the surveillance teams: Julin had led them on a merry chase, then vanished.
And now Kolteo was late for supper.
At the door to his penthouse apartment, he mentally set all the business of the day aside. He was home now. He could relax and enjoy the comforts of home and married life.
Inside, he drank in the familiar sights and sounds. Soft music played: a string quartet by his favorite composer. The room was tastefully arranged and decorated. He remembered how Sari had worked so hard to bring it all together, and she was always tweaking it, updating it, to keep up with the times and fashions.
He admired her eye for detail and her work ethic. Most women in their social circles hired those things out and lazed about all day, spending money extravagantly. But his wife preferred to keep busy, working industriously with her hands at one thing or another, and spent money judiciously. Her mind was sharp, and she could keep up with him easily when he discussed the affairs of Empire.
He heard her in the other room. “Sari,” he called. “I’m home.”
She emerged into the hallway. He smiled: his wife, tall, dark, raven-haired. She was beautiful. Her piercing green eyes… he recognized only too late that they flashed with anger.
She stalked out of the hall and into the living room. “Where have you been?”
“I’m sorry, I know I said I would be home in time for dinner.”
“Yes, you did. Where have you been?”
He swallowed. “Something came up.”
She turned away from him, then looked askance. “Something.”
He nodded, encouragingly. “Something.”
“And you can’t talk about it, I suppose.”
He smiled. “Thank you for understanding.”
She sniffed. “Your dinner is cold. I already ate.”
He peeked into the dining room. The table was set for two. Tall tapered candles had burned down.
“Where are the servants?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I sent them home. I wanted to prepare you a nice meal.”
He looked at her in surprise. “I didn’t know you could cook.”
She shook her head, and turned away. “I’ve been practicing. I wanted to surprise you. It’s cold now.”
The plates were clean. He imagined her waiting for him. He imagined her in the kitchen, eating the food she had prepared for him, alone, with recordings of his favorite composer playing softly in the background. It broke his heart.
He went to her, put his hands on her perfect shoulders. “Sari, please forgive me. I didn’t realize.”
She stepped away from him and turned to face him in one fluid motion. Her piercing green eyes were blurred with tears now. “You’ve been home late every night for months, Kolteo.”
He started to say something but faltered and sighed. “There’s been so much to do. I’m…”
“You’re an important man. I know.” She pressed her lips together in a smile that did not light up her downcast eyes.
She turned and paced into the living room. She stared at the art and the portraits that hung on the walls. He followed her at a distance.
She was staring at the portrait of her parents. He couldn’t look at them. He had brought so much pain to her family. He looked at Julin’s portrait instead, but it wasn’t much better. He remembered the contempt on Julin’s face. He knew.
“Kolteo,” said Sari. She wouldn’t look at him, “There’s a party tomorrow evening that I must attend. I would like you to be there with me.”
He was lost in thoughts of Julin and what dangers might have come with him.
Her question finally registered with him. “Wh—yes, yes, of course, I can come.” He looked at her. “Of course. I’ll make this up to you.”
He looked at her. Her face wore a quizzical look, one eyebrow arched, a strange light in her eyes.
“Kolteo, why were you looking at Julin’s picture like that? Have you had news of him?”
He looked at the portrait, then back at her. “No, no,” he lied. “What came up today, it involved the fleet. Made me think of your father and your brother.” A half truth.
She looked to Julin’s portrait with a far-off cast to her eyes. “I miss him so, Kolteo.”
Kolteo shook his head. “I don’t know what you see in him.”
She whirled, in sudden anger. “He’s my brother!”
All the frustration of the day rose in Kolteo. He swatted the portrait from the wall. It crashed in the corner. “Some brother! He left you and your mother alone, especially your mother, to waste away. And nary a word in ten years! He’s a scoundrel, Sari, and you’d do better to forget him!”
Something in Sari’s face broke—he could feel it in his heart. She fled from the room in tears.
Kolteo sat heavily on the divan. Grand Admiral Terch glared down at him from the wall. He buried his head in his hands.
After a while, he got up and ate cold roast beef that had been lovingly prepared by his wife. Even cold, it was delicious. It turned to ashes in his stomach.
Sari did not come out of the room. He found the door locked.
He slept uneasily in the living room on the divan.
Continued in: 4. Pracclen Receives a Visitor
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