SALVAGE OF EMPIRE

6. A Strange Benefactor

Continued from .
The story begins with 1. The Director.

A slight scuff out of time with his own footsteps alerted Julin. He whirled, throwing his pack down and drawing his pistol in a two-handed grip, his left hand clamping the light against the barrel. He caught a flash of gray robes, then he found his arm thrust up, his legs swept out from under him, and he was lying on the hard ground staring up at the roof of the tunnel with a knife blade at his throat. Shadows flickered crazily as his gun and light clattered away.

A soft quiet voice, a man’s voice, spoke out of the darkness above his face: “First lesson: in close quarters, draw your sword.”

“Who are you?” Julin gasped in a ragged whisper. His heart raced.

The man chuckled. “If I had been an enemy, you would be dead by now. I was beginning to think you were deaf.” He withdrew the knife and rose, releasing Julin.

Julin scrambled back and sat up part-way. “What do you want?”

“I am Vhen Rani, of the Geniit—you don’t know me. I want to help you.”

“How did you find me down here?”

“Where else would you go? If Pracclen at the height of his glory couldn’t protect you, you sought obscurity. The tunnels are not well-known, and then there was your old friend Dorgiovan, a likely shelter until the danger passed.”

“How could you know any of that?”

The dim light caught a glint of a smile as it passed over Vhen Vani’s face. “Get up, pick up your things, and walk with me.”

Julin regained his feet and retrieved his light and his pack. “I’ll have a fun time finding my gun. I don’t know where it went.”

“A quarter turn to your right, about five paces ahead.”

“How—” he began, but he shone his flashlight in the indicated place. There indeed was his gun. He picked it up, switched on the safety, and holstered it again. “You said you were Geniit?”

“Yes. Walk with me. Can you run on that leg? We must away. The Enforcers will be here soon.”

“Enforcers—” he began, then hurried to catch up, for Vhen Rani was already jogging.

“Of course. They have access to the same records that I do and can draw the same conclusions, in time. Or your friend may find the reward on your head too tempting.”

“Dorgio wouldn’t do that,” he said, and immediately reconsidered. Would he? He hadn’t seen the man in ten years. Much could happen in ten years. A man could change in ten years.

Vhen Rani said nothing.

They jogged on.

The other man led him down tunnel after tunnel, and he quickly lost track of the turns.

“Where are we going?” he finally asked.

“We are leading our pursuers on a merry chase. If they enter the tunnels in search of you, of course they will bring a tracker. Down here where wind does not blow and rain does not fall, our trail will last for hours.”

The pit of his stomach fell. He had not considered the full meaning of pursuit by the Enforcers. He had imagined lying low in the tunnels for weeks if necessary. He wouldn’t have lasted more than an hour.

“We have almost reached our exit.”

A minute later, they came across a ladder up to the next level. Vhen began to climb, and Julin followed. They climbed three levels before they emerged out onto a cold gray winter street.

“This way,” said Vhen. “We will walk now.”

They walked three blocks between towering buildings, Julin looking about nervously, afraid at any moment to hear a shout and see black armor.

They reached a narrow side street without incident and turned down it. A moment later, a sky car swooped down, one door raised.

“In, quickly,” urged Vhen.

Julin dove in, Vhen following. The door closed and the sky car rose up to merge with traffic high above.

A man, also in a gray cloak, sat at the controls. He did not turn to look at them or speak to them.

They sat on the bench seat. “We are safe for now,” said Vhen. He smiled at Julin. “You have many questions.”

Julin relaxed and really looked at Vhen for the first time. He reminded Julin distinctly of an owl, with short, curly black hair, a wide face, and flat, hooked nose. His narrow brown eyes seemed to perceive far more than he let on.

“I’ve never met any Geniit before. My father never employed one that I know of.”

Vhen chuckled. “It’s true he never employed any. Because your father was Geniit.”

Julin frowned. “How is that possible? He would have told me.”

“He couldn’t. Unlicensed Geniit are shot on sight. It was his most closely-guarded secret.”

Julin sat back and let that sink in a moment. Then he looked at Vhen. “Did you know him?”

Vhen smiled. “Yes, I knew him. I too am unlicensed and served in the Navy. In the Grand Admiral’s office. I was his protege once. He was a great man, and we have all suffered a great loss.”

Julin nodded, and turned his head to stare out the window at the endless waves of buildings that stretched out as far as the eye could see.

At last he spoke. “So you know what happened to him?”

Vhen shook his head. “No, actually.”

Julin looked at him and smirked. “You seem to know everything else.”

“And yet there are a great many things even the Geniit do not know. It remains one of the mysteries of this century. That’s one reason why I came looking for you. You wouldn’t have returned unless you knew.” He paused, hesitant and doubtful. “You do know?”

Julin grinned. “I may have some ideas.”

Vhen nodded, seemingly satisfied. “You came to Pracclen. He wanted the throne. Certain knowledge of the Emperor’s fate would give him the edge he needed.” He looked at Julin. “But you hadn’t given it to him yet, had you?”

“I gave nothing to Pracclen, except advice, and certain assurances.”

“Of course. So as of yet, you are the only one in possession of the facts. I wonder, in what form?”

Julin just grinned.

“Pracclen offered you protection. He offered to clear your father’s name.”

“Don’t forget revenge.”

“Of course. In taking the throne, Director Ais must be deposed, along with the other regents. You would have had a direct hand in that.”

Julin said nothing.

“And what of your sister?”

Julin’s face darkened. “What of her?”

“You could not take revenge on her husband without hurting her I would assume.”

Julin’s face was like stone. “She knew what she was doing when she married him.”

Vhen nodded. “Yes, that makes sense. Talking to you is very helpful.”

Julin shook his head and couldn’t help but laugh. The tension broke. “Is this why you’ve gone to all this trouble? Just to settle your mind on the matter?”

“And if it were, would you find it strange?” Vhen smiled. “We have gone to more trouble for less. Knowledge is very important to the Geniit. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t spend ten years in exile to find a single piece of knowledge.”

Julin sat back. “You have me there. But it’s not so much the knowledge itself, but what can be done with it.” His father had told him that many times.

“You are much like your father. As Grand Admiral, he wielded knowledge as a weapon.”

Julin looked long and hard at Vhen. He had to remind himself that this was a stranger. He felt like an open book before him. Who was this man, really?

Vhen smiled. “Your father contributed much of your file, and I’ve read it all to prepare for our meeting. I do feel as if I knew you well. He was very proud of you, you know?”

Julin smirked. If only the old man had said that once in a while…

“I know he never told you. He was afraid of giving you a big head, as talented as you were.”

Julin frowned. “Stop that. What are you doing?”

“What?” Vhen looked puzzled.

“Are you…” Julin shook his head. Tension in his chest again. “That’s not possible.”

Vhen smiled again. “Am I reading your mind?”

Julin looked at him expectantly.

Vhen shook his head. “No, I’m not. You’re right, that’s impossible.”

“So how…?”

“The Geniit live by two things: knowledge yes, but also intuition. Knowledge feeds the intuition. Many train their faculties of reason and understanding and persuasion. Many gather knowledge and wisdom. Only the Geniit train the intuition. There are many techniques. I was demonstrating one just now.”

“You were speaking the words in my head just as I was thinking them.”

Vhen nodded. “A classic Geniit interrogation technique. I established rapport, paced you in conversation, then started leading the conversation in different directions and observing your reaction. I developed a close empathic identification with your state of mind. I wasn’t reading your thoughts, just extrapolating them.” He grinned. “I don’t usually do the spooky mind-reading routine. You wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t want you to.”

Julin nodded. It made a strange sort of sense. “Alright, I’ll take your word for it. So I ask again: why? Why all this?”

“Because your father suspected he wasn’t coming back. He charged me with completing your training.”

Just then, the man at the front of the sky-car turned to look at them. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’m sure of it now: we’re being followed.”


Continued in:

Imperial agents pursue Julin and his new friend Vhen Rani. Will they be able to escape?

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