Continued from 3. Kolteo at Home.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
He woke early the next morning. The bedroom door was still shut. He started to write a note to Sari but found he had nothing he could say. He crumpled the paper in his hand and left quietly.
He would make this up to her. Their comfortable life together hung by a thread. He would protect her, no matter what.
The night’s rest had clarified the larger situation in his mind. In the sky-car, he considered his next move. Dallebasel Pracclen was wrapped up in the middle of all this. He had made a brazen show of strength in providing an armed escort for Julin the day before. Whatever Julin was up to, Pracclen stood to gain significantly. Kolteo did not like the directions that line of thought took him.
Pracclen had come to power under Mad Emperor Moldrion, rising up from humble beginnings as a lowly thug to consolidate power across much of the Orion Arm. The Emperor groomed gangsters like Pracclen and used them ruthlessly to maintain an iron grip: those who escaped the grasp of the official Imperial authorities fell into the hands of the gangs. Few escaped the gangs and lived to tell about it.
Kolteo’s parents had not escaped. He could not be sure, but he had long suspected that Pracclen had been involved in their deaths.
Pracclen and his ilk were leeches, sucking on the lifeblood of the Empire. Director Kolteo Ais, lacking the power yet to wipe them out, dealt with them only out of necessity, and he now admitted that this had granted them some amount of autonomy.
After yesterday, he saw that Pracclen, especially, was demonstrating far too much freedom. He must rein the gangster in and flush Julin out. He would give Julin every opportunity to make a mistake.
A smile widened on Kolteo’s face as the sky-car descended to the Ministry complex.
This time, Kolteo took more than his personal guard. Three armored sky-cars perched at Pracclen’s private eyrie high at the top of a tall building. The city stretched out all around and below. Two five-man squads of Enforcers formed up on Director Kolteo Ais, with Romik and Frens at the head of each. Four more squads stood at the ready to either side of the doors.
Marrem had called ahead to announce the Director’s formal visit, so there probably wouldn’t be a firefight. Not immediately, at least.
The doors opened, and a majordomo emerged, dressed in a lavish suit. He didn’t so much as blink at the troop of soldiers at his front door. He bowed to Director Kolteo. “Mr. Pracclen will see you now, sir.” He glanced at the two squads. “Begging your pardon, sir, but I believe only half your party will fit on the lift.”
Kolteo beckoned Frens, who nodded smartly and stepped forward. The majordomo bowed again. “Of course, sir.”
Frens and his squad followed the servant in.
Frens’ voice buzzed in Kolteo’s ear. “In place, sir. No Pracclen. We have quite the welcome party here.”
Kolteo’s lip twitched. He and Romik exchanged knowing glances.
Soon, a new servant appeared, held out his arms, and stepped to the side, gesturing in to the lift. Kolteo stepped forward, and Romik’s squad followed him into the lift.
The servant stood at the door and bowed. “With compliments from Mr. Pracclen, sir, I will see that the rest of your escort is made comfortable while they wait.”
Kolteo inclined his head. The lift doors shut, and the lift descended.
When the doors opened again, there was nobody but the majordomo. “This way, if you please, sir.”
The lift opened into a high-ceilinged anteroom. Ahead were another set of tall, heavy oaken doors. The majordomo went to these, and pushed them both open at the same time.
Beyond the doors, Dallebasel Pracclen sat upon what could only be called a throne, upon a dais. This was an audience chamber, clearly modeled after the old Imperial audience chamber that had been gathering dust these past ten years.
Kolteo led Romik and his squad forward, across the antechamber, into the audience chamber.
Frens and his squad were nowhere in sight. Instead, thugs and gangsters congregated on either side of the dais, all dressed up in the most expensive suits. Pracclen’s courtiers, Kolteo supposed.
Romik’s voice buzzed in Kolteo’s ear. “Frens, we’re on a different floor than you. Eyes on Pracclen. This is a setup. I count thirty targets.”
Pracclen sat slouched in his throne, bull-necked, bald, with quicksilver gray eyes that moved restlessly. He presented a broad, permanent smirk to the world. A young woman dressed in a thin silk robe stood behind the throne, caressing his head and neck. He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. She left demurely by the back door. The door shut quietly.
“Director,” he said.
Director Kolteo Ais inclined his head. “Pracclen. I’m unsure of protocol, here. Should I bow? You’re not wearing a ring. I could kiss your toes, perhaps?”
Pracclen laughed. “Director Ais, insolent as always, and befitting your station. No, it is yet I who should bow to you.” He remained seated. “How are you enjoying your privileged position?”
Kolteo spread his arms. “I am a servant to the people of this great Empire. I find it suits me.”
“It is strange, is it not? Living in an Empire that lacks an Emperor?”
“And yet perhaps the Emperor will return. He did not tell me of his plans. As co-regents we maintain the course until he sends word or we hear news of his demise.”
“Of course,” conceded Pracclen. He stroked his chin. “And yet, one wonders how many years we must wait. The Emperor was not a young man.”
“It is a mystery. I have heard all the speculations. The Committee will bring forth a decision in due time, should it become necessary. Until then we maintain the course.”
“Yes, yes, I understand.” Pracclen waved his hand as if shooing a fly. “Too much talk of politics wearies the soul. Your family is well?”
Kolteo’s smile faded. “My wife is doing well, thank you.”
Pracclen’s face fell in mock sympathy. “Ah, of course, I had forgotten. Some days I live in the past. Your father was a great man; your mother a sterling woman. Do you know, I heard that neither one begged for life at the end?” He shook his head. “Proud to the very last is the way I heard it.”
Kolteo said nothing, his eyes glowering.
Pracclen smiled. “Your wife, then. How is her brother?”
“You would know better than I.”
“I hear you spoke to him only yesterday.”
Kolteo nodded slightly. “I hear you have taken him in as your guest.”
Pracclen snapped his fingers. “Why, of course! How silly of me. Why yes, he is my guest.”
“Enough of your games, Pracclen. Where is he? Bring him out.”
The gangster sneered. “Am I a dog, Director? Shall I fetch and beg, and roll over too?”
Kolteo smiled. “No, you are not a dog, Dallebasel. You are a rat with delusions of doghood.”
A growl rose from Pracclen’s courtiers. Several took a half step forward. Romik tensed.
Pracclen laughed, short and sharp, then chuckled humorlessly. “You are by reputation a man of little pretense, but I wonder at your insolence, Director. You and your men are divided. This one squad of yours is outnumbered. From where I sit, it is not pretense that you lack, but all sense.”
Frens’ voice buzzed in Kolteo’s ear once more. “In position, sir. Sorry for the delay. We had to be quiet, you know.”
Kolteo’s smile widened. “Sense takes many forms, Dallebasel. I say now, where is Julin Terch? I would see him. Now.”
Praclen’s face darkened. “You weary me, Director. I will not be ordered about in my own home.”
Kolteo put his hands behind his back and paced a semicircle, surveying the room. “It is quite a home you have.” He smiled at the ranks of courtiers. “And such company! I hope he treats you all as you deserve.” He approached a large thug, crowded him, looked up at him. The man smelt of garlic. “He feeds you well? Raw meat and biscuits?”
The gangster growled deep in his throat, then glanced up at Pracclen, uncertain.
Kolteo laughed and turned his back on him. “You train your dogs well, for a rat, Dallebasel.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Romik’s stance shift. The moment he had been waiting for. He whirled, steel flashing, and the thug, who had made as if to tackle Kolteo, impaled himself on the smallsword, helped along by Kolteo’s shallow lunge. Kolteo gave the man a two-armed shove with the cross-guard and danced back two paces, his sword dripping red on the expensive carpet. The whole room had gone deathly still. The thug, steadied by his fellows, recovered his balance and stared at Kolteo, astonished, then looked down at the fresh red blossom bubbling on his own chest. He began to cough.
The air shimmered and hummed as personal shields flicked on around the room. Pracclen stood. An armsman tossed a sword to him. Sound grew muted as Kolteo flicked his own shield on.
“Now,” he said. He dropped to the floor.
Romik’s squad broke suddenly, clearing the center of the room. A shotgun roared and the double doors blew open, admitting Frenz’s squad. Romik’s squad knelt and sprayed the courtiers with automatic fire just over Kolteo’s head. Shields flared rose-red under the barrage. The man Kolteo had skewered convulsed and fell. The gangsters cowered back, unable to see while Frenz and his men advanced into the room.
“Blades!” shouted Frenz. As one, the Enforcers slung their carbines and drew steel.
Kolteo leapt up and dashed to the dais. He kicked over the throne. Pracclen had taken cover behind the dais, his shield flashing. Kolteo stood above him, a wedge of Enforcers at his back. “Up, rat!” he snarled. “You want a throne? Fight for it!”
The gangsters had recovered and now rallied when they saw Pracclen rise and brandish his sword. They outnumbered Kolteo’s men three to one, though they wore no armour. Blades flashed out, and the real fight began.
The two squads closed with Kolteo into a phalanx on the dais, each man flanked by crackling red flame where his shield joined with the next. Kolteo and Romik fought side by side, lunging, parrying, Kolteo laughing and shouting and taunting, Romik grim and silent.
Steel clashed with steel; shields flared and cracked and sparked as blades glanced off, warded by invisible forces. When a thrusting blade, skillfully placed, penetrated a shield, electric arcs crawled across the blade as the blade circuit worked against the shield to short it out.
The Enforcers were out-numbered, but the gangsters were sorely outmatched. They were bullies and sycophants, used to intimidation and assassination, not close combat with disciplined men. From the high ground of the dais, with closed shields and armour, the two Enforcer squads were completely unassailable. Kolteo worked wonders with his blade, felling thug after thug. Before a minute had passed, the two sides were evened, and the battle became a rout.
Kolteo looked about. He had lost track of Pracclen in the fray, but not before lightly wounding him when the press brought them together. He did not see Pracclen among the dead and wounded. Then he saw the back door hanging open. “Pracclen’s escaping!” he cried. “Romik, with me!”
Romik and his squad broke formation and followed Kolteo through the door into a hallway. Two wounded thugs cowered before them. Kolteo brandished his sword and spat, “Where did Pracclen go?”
“His quarters,” gasped one of the thugs, indicating the end of the hall with a shaky hand. “That door, left, last door on the right.”
“Romik, see this man gets medical attention first after our own.” Then Kolteo was off in a flash down the hall. Romik left two of his men behind and ran to catch up. They all ran without shields—doors and tight spaces were too hard to navigate otherwise.
They soon found the door to Pracclen’s quarters. It was locked, but Romik kicked it down. They entered and cleared the room in moments, but they were too late.
The lights were down very low. Pracclen lay in a heap, face down on the floor in a dark, spreading pool.
Huddled in a corner, her robe now dark-spattered, the young woman that Pracclen had dismissed earlier sat weeping. A long knife lay on the carpet beside her, the bright blade darkened and mottled.
Continued in: 5. Obscurity
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