Continued from 4. Pracclen Receives a Visitor.
The story begins with 1. The Director.
Julin stumbled, just catching himself on the tunnel wall. He knelt, rolled up his torn pant-leg, and cinched the binding tighter around his calf. Sweat streamed down his forehead, and he grimaced. He’d gotten off lucky: the bullet, a stray ricochet, had gone clean through the calf muscle. The bleeding had stopped scant hours ago, but the wound burned with every step.
He stood shakily to his feet. He had to stoop slightly under the low ceiling. He flashed his light about the tunnel up ahead. He had expected to come upon the next intersection by now, but he had only been down here once before, ten years prior.
Gritting his teeth, he staggered on. Hours had passed since he had narrowly escaped Kolteo’s Enforcers as they swept through Pracclen’s penthouse compound. At the first sound of gunfire, he had grabbed his pack and run. His paranoia had likely saved his life. He chuckled to himself at that thought. Paranoia. Is it paranoia if they really are out to get you?
Nobody had expected Kolteo to take Pracclen head-on. The gangster was legendary even out in the Periphery, and there were rumors among Julin’s contacts that Pracclen desired the throne. Having met the man finally, Julin knew now that the gangster had been ruined by his success: he was overconfident, impatient to make his move.
But if Julin couldn’t rely on even Dallebasel Pracclen himself for protection, could he find safety anywhere?
Well, he would try. There was the next intersection, finally, and he recognized the chalk mark on the right-hand tunnel: Dorgio’s sign. Dorgio had been the son of one of the Terch family servants in better days. They had grown up together, the best of friends despite the wide gulf of class that yawned between them. It was Dorgio who had first fronted money to send Julin off Siben in search of his father. Dorgio had been a small-time crook then, and, if he knew his friend, he was likely a small-time crook now. The man had no vision.
And now Julin needed someone with no vision, someone entirely below the notice of the Empire. If the great Dallebasel Pracclen wasn’t safe, the only safety lay in complete obscurity. Dorgiovan Leo would fit the bill perfectly.
Julin found the familiar doorway at last. The retrofitted blast door looked completely out of place here in these tunnels. Dorgio’s sign was chalked again just above it. He rapped on the blast door with his knuckles: rat-tat, rat-tat, rat-tat-tat.
God, please, let him be in. He waited a bit, then knocked again with the same pattern.
After another moment, the mechanism inside the door creaked, and the blast door raised suddenly with a whoosh. Julin stepped back and squinted at the silhouette of a slim figure that appeared.
A bright light flashed in Julin’s face. “Yeah, whaddya want?” asked a familiar voice.
Julin laughed in relief. “Dorgio? It’s me, Julin. Julin Terch.”
An uncertain pause. Then, “Well, I’ll be the Emperor’s uncle. Yeah, Julin Terch, in the flesh?”
The two men embraced. Dorgio was a small man, coming up only just to Julin’s chest. They parted, and Dorgio examined Julin in the lamplight. “I haven’t seen you in what, nine years?”
“Ten years, yeah? Well, please, come in for a moment.”
Dorgio led the way. Julin limped along behind him. Beyond the blast doors, a second door led into a sparsely furnished shotgun apartment.
Julin looked around, grinning his lopsided grin. “You don’t change much, do you?”
Dorgio shrugged and flopped down in a large basket-like chair. “Yeah, what would I change? Everything’s just how I like it.”
Julin set his pack down, arranged his sword, and eased himself onto an ancient sofa. “Contentment. I haven’t seen much of that in a long time.”
Dorgio eyed Julin closely. “You’re hurt.”
Julin grimaced. “Just a flesh wound. You have a medical kit down here?”
Dorgio looked deep in thought, then shook his head, slowly. “Yeah, I got one.” He made no move to get up.
Julin raised an eyebrow.
Dorgio nodded. “So the rumors are true, eh?”
“You got Pracclen slabbed, that’s what I hear.”
Julin grunted. He hadn’t known that Pracclen was dead. “Word moves fast.”
“So do earthquakes.”
“Are you going to get me that medical kit? Or do I have to get up and find it?”
Dorgio’s lip twitched. He narrowed his eyes, then took a deep breath and blew it out. “Yeah, I’ll get it.” He got up and disappeared into the back room.
Julin’s heart sank. This was not the warm welcome he’d been hoping for. He sank back on the couch and stared at the ceiling.
Dorgio returned a few minutes later with a tackle box and a clean towel. He found Julin sound asleep. He sighed and shook his head. “Yeah, sleep while you can. You’re gonna need it.”
He rolled up the pant leg above Julin’s wounded calf, laid out the towel on the couch cushion, then lugged the leg up onto the towel. He removed the binding and examined the wound closely, clicking his tongue, then nodded with apparent satisfaction. The bullet had indeed gone clean through.
He went out and came in again with a steaming basin. He cleaned Julin’s calf with soap and hot water. Then he opened the kit and began cleaning the wound with alcohol.
The sharp stinging woke Julin with a gasp. He looked at Dorgio and let his head sag back. “Thanks,” he said.
Dorgio didn’t look up. “Yeah, well, I couldn’t send you on with a bum leg, now could I?”
“Send me on?”
Dorgio began packing the wound with something cold. Then it began to feel very hot. Julin wrinkled his brow. “Ow, what’s that?”
“Military wound dressing. I don’t know what it does, but it should make it easier to walk on it.”
He then took out a clean dressing and deftly bound Julin’s calf with it, tying it off with quick fingers. “There. Leave that be for at least a day, maybe two, before you so much as look at it. After that, clean dressing every day for a week.”
“I was hoping I could stay on with you for a little while. I need to lie low.”
“Yeah, well, about that.” Dorgio stood. “Word’s gotten around fast. You’re bad news, Julin. You brought the house down on Pracclen. Nobody’s safe with you around.” He shook his head. “Yeah, I can’t risk it.”
Julin smiled weakly and shrugged. “I thought he was untouchable. Guess I was wrong.”
“Nobody’s untouchable, I guess. What’d you do, anyway? I never heard of anything like this, not since the Emperor went off.”
“I found it, Dorgio.”
“You remember why I left?”
“Yeah, you found your dad?”
Julin frowned and nodded. “And more than that, I found out what happened to him, and to the Emperor.”
Dorgio nodded. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. And it looks bad for my brother-in-law. Real bad. And others, too.”
“Heads gonna roll?”
Dorgio pressed his lips together, then nodded once, sharply. “Yeah, you gotta leave, Julin. You can’t stay here.”
Julin pulled himself up and stood, shakily. He tested his weight on the bad leg. He committed more weight. He stood normally. Yes, it would do. “Thanks for the fix-up, Doc. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yeah, Julin, I got nothing against you. I just can’t risk it. You understand?”
Julin nodded. He understood. Too well.
“Well, I’d better go,” he said. He took up his pack and shouldered it.
“Yeah, I’ll see you out.”
Outside the blast doors, Dorgio cuffed him on the shoulder. “I’ll see you around. Take care of yourself. Yeah, and look me up when this all blows over.”
Julin started to say something, but the blast door came down, suddenly sundering them, leaving him in darkness. He chuckled humorlessly and shook his head. “Yeah. I’ll do that,” he said to the empty tunnel.
Julin adjusted the pack on his shoulder, pulled out his light, and trudged on, moving for the sake of moving. His mouth was dry, and a tightness had settled in his chest. If even Dorgio wouldn’t take him in, what hope was there?
He’d been to the outermost rim of the galaxy and back, braved unspeakable dangers, and found the secret that all the force of the Empire now strained to protect. He had with him the power to clear his father’s name and destroy the man who had sent him to his doom. He had imagined Kolteo cowering before him, begging for mercy. He’d played over the scene many times in his mind. Not once had he imagined this: shut out, on the run, with nobody who would listen to him.
At least Kolteo wasn’t here to see him and gloat.
He was at a loss. These tunnels stretched across the entire planet. He could wander down here for a long time. He could sleep down here. He’d slept in worse conditions. Water he could find, but he would have to have food eventually, and then he would be exposed and vulnerable. Kolteo had the manpower to spread a dragnet that he would have no hope of escaping.
He walked on, one foot in front of the other, aimless, head bowed, deep in thought. He did not see the shadowy figure closing in behind him.
Continued in: 6. A Strange Benefactor…
Julin meets with unexpected help… but can the stranger be trusted?
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